‘We’re not in igloos anymore’: Seal Summit wraps with hope for a growing market for Inuit hunters

Inuk hunter Rubin Komangapik and his hunting partner Yoanis Menge have hope that the worst is behind them.

The pair run Reconseal — a co-operative whose name is a play on reconciliation. Based out of the Magdalen Islands, Reconseal supplies southern Inuit organizations with seal meat and skin so urban Inuit can access seal skins and country foods, a term encompassing traditional staples such as seal meat, arctic char and caribou.

Along the way, the two hunters teach each other cross-cultural hunting techniques and trade worldviews.

“Country food, on the whole, is happiness for us,” Komangapik explained. “When we don’t eat our country food, we are eating empty, sad animals. When we eat country foods, we’re eating free, happy animals.

“We are what we eat.”

The sealing industry was rocked in 2009 by a European Union ban on seal products and an increasingly negative public perception of sealing in western markets, including Canada.

Sealing has been a target for many animal rights organizations like PETA, Greenpeace and the Humane Society, which have campaigned to ban commercial sealing outright, with exceptions for “subsistence hunting” for Indigenous communities. But since the Seal Summit that took place in St. John’s, Newfoundland on Nov. 8 and 9, focusing on the future of seals and sealing, the two have renewed hope for the sealing industry.

“We’re on the turning point now,” Menge said. “We see beautiful things in the future.”

The government of Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) are “completely committed” to supporting the sealing sector based on the best available science, Adwaite Tiwary, director of trade and international market access with DFO, told Canada’s National Observer.

There is a strong market in Asia, in particular China, and Komangapik and Menge hope seal meat will eventually become a homegrown food staple.

But Tiwary acknowledges changing public perception of western seal markets remains a challenge, even in Canada. There are trade impediments and issues of “brand,” Tiwary said. Seal meat isn’t regularly sold in restaurants and shops, for example.

Jenny McQueen from harpseals.org argues commercial sealing should still be banned.

“The federal government is trying to conflate the commercial industry with the Indigenous subsistence hunters,” McQueen said. “We are all for the Indigenous population subsistence hunting, but we find that is no longer being honoured.”

However, Komangapik says commercial hunting is subsistence-based for many Inuit sealers because without the commercial market, many sealers can’t afford the gas and equipment needed to hunt, especially in the North.

“We're in the year 2022, and the way I see the sealing industry, all of it is subsistence hunting now,” Komangapik said.

“We’re not living in igloos anymore, you know what I mean?”

Komangapik was reluctant to denigrate animal rights activism, but he said stop sealing activists have a different philosophy than people living on the land.

“They are loving the seal the wrong way,” Komangapik said.

There is an overpopulation problem with harp seals that impacts their ecosystem, according to the DFO. Seal populations have grown steadily since the mid-century. The harp seal population has grown from two million in the 1970s to 7.6 million in 2019, the largest in recorded history, according to a report from the DFO’s Atlantic Seal Task Team.

Adult harp seals can weigh up to 800 pounds, according to Komangapik, and they’re predators whose primary food source is fish. The seal task team report said in 2014 the total prey consumption was approximately 3.2 million metric tons. That same year, all commercial catches in Newfoundland and Labrador equalled 256,000 tons.

Seals are often seen as the top predator in the St. Lawrence Gulf, but Komangapik says that’s wrong: humans are the top predator.

“There’s nothing bad with nature, there’s just imbalance,” he said.

Hunting seals is one way to feed the ocean and bring it back into balance, Komangapik said. It’s what Komangapik calls making a circle because humans are part of the life cycle, and we play an integral role in maintaining balance in the ocean ecosystem, which has seen seal numbers grow while fish populations decline exponentially.

“We’re a really intelligent creature and we should start thinking this way.”

Animal rights organizations maintain that seals are not overpopulated and that sealing is cruel, unnecessary and must be banned once and for all.

But Komangapik and Menge both agree it’s easy to separate human beings from nature when living in cities. It's an entirely different reality when someone is on the land.

“We are nature: that’s one thing we tend to forget just because we can turn on a light like turning on the sun,” Komangapik said.

— With files from Karyn Pugliese

Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer