In 1976, Greenpeace launched a highly emotional and radical campaign against the annual hunt of baby harp seals on the ice flows off Canada’s Newfoundland and Labrador coastal regions. The campaign, effectively destroying the market for seal pelts, was one of the most controversial in Greenpeace history, due to its political angle and the socio-economic displacement it caused for many indigenous people.
The anti-sealing campaign, like the anti-whaling campaign was influential in shaping the social construction of the seal and its plight in dealing with the human species. Framed in the setting of a “war against seals” the campaign’s origins date back to the 1950s, and were heavily influenced by the environmental movement of the 1960s in western states. The anti-sealing campaign was mostly propelled by the tactics and strategies employed by the anti-whaling campaign, especially in the context of direct action strategies and the social construction of seals as the epitome of mammals in need of protection from human greed and environmental destruction. The campaign took place in Canada; home to the largest marine mammal hunt in the world and the only industrialised nation to carry out widespread commercial sealing activities. The primary targets of sealing were harp seals and hooded (ringed) seals, though Greenpeace’s campaign predominately focused on the photogenic harp seal pup. Emulating successful anti-nuclear tactics which threw Greenpeace into the international spotlight, Greenpeace was the vanguard for wildlife and environmental activism, placing themselves between the aggressor and the victim, while circulating graphic pictures to worldwide media and communicating the gory horror of environmental and wildlife injustices.
Through evocative and emotional direct actions against sealers, Greenpeace conjured a new public sense of conservation, and by throwing themselves ‘between hunter and hunted’, the group’s campaigners drew the world into a war against sealers. Millions of people around the world, particularly Europeans and North Americans, responded with shock to the graphic pictures of defenseless newborn seals being bludgeoned with ‘hakkapiks’. Greenpeace, working alongside other transnational civic organisations like IFAW, sent out countless appeals for funds, using photographs of Newfoundland and Labrador fishermen clubbing baby seals that succeeded in horrifying the international community. The Greenpeace campaign began intimating that the killing provided nothing more than luxury furs for the vain and wealthy, and extra money for a few east coast fishermen. Furthermore, the harp seals’ allegedly declining numbers and the nature of the hunt were brought to the public’s attention simultaneously, giving the campaign legitimacy and leverage. Given that harp seals were hunted on the ice, and rarely fled from their captors, their slaughter was easy to document.
By vilifying and demonising sealers in Inuit, Newfoundland and Labrador, the campaign against sealers effectively devastated the livelihoods of many tribes. The swift and vast ramifications of their anti-sealing campaign suggests that their campaign was truly effective; receiving the global reaction that they sought, creating conditions that direct the actions of others within a world context. The campaign was particularly powerful as it lobbied government officials and celebrities, gathered scientific information, organised protests and boycotts and organised protesters to disrupt the sealers.
In 1983, responding to immense public support for the end of the seal harvest and intense public pressure on European parliamentarians, the Council of Ministers of the European Economic Community (EEC) approved a directive banning the importation of skins of harp and hooded seal pups for two years. By this point, international condemnation was so strong that it deterred people in many nations from buying and wearing any seal garment. The consequences of the EEC ban were instantaneous. The value of all seal pelts dropped so dramatically that the hunting costs far exceeded the return. While the protesters watched the collapse of Canada’s east coast whitecoat sealing industry with satisfaction, indigenous tribes suffered immensely from the overall collapse of the markets for seal pelts. This Greenpeace victory was followed by another in 1987, when the the commercial hunt for 6-12 day old harp seal pups was officially closed by Canada in southeastern Labrador, northeastern Newfoundland, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Demand and prices for seal pelts further continues to drop in the 1980’s, after Greenpeace sprouted relentless imagery of hardy fishermen bashing in the skulls of baby seals. This instigated a huge boycott of Canadian fish products, leaving many early supporters of sealing to concede defeat. The tactics of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s were novel in their approach, and overwhelmed the sealing community, whose industry was small and uncoordinated, consisting largely of fisherman from poor communities in isolated regions of Canada, and the fragmented Canadian government. Sealers were enraged by the radicalism that Greenpeace deployed, turning images of their heroes and hunters into cowards and killers’, but found it difficult to counter the portrayals of a ‘brutal’ and ‘inhumane’ hunt.
Greenpeace’s campaign against the slaughter of harp seals is an early example of the conflicting nature of environmental and wildlife campaigns, in which the interest in saving a species or habitat conflicts with local working people for whom that species constitutes a resource. Never has this conflict been more apparent than in the war that was waged between transnational activists like Greenpeace, and Canadian sealing interest groups.
Indigenous groups which partake in sealing based on their cultural and traditional practices and commercial use, rely heavily on the seal industry, using the seal as their main staple for food, as well as for clothing, boots, fuel and lamp oil. Thus, the experience during the anti-sealing campaign reveals the inextricable link between the social concerns of campaign targets that are rooted in communities living there, and environmental and wildlife issues. In the anti-sealing campaign, the ecocentric ideology, though initially intended to embrace indigenous communities, largely excluded them in the framing of the issue. Few connections to human livelihood were made in Greenpeace’s public release of information or lobby documents.
Here, at My Green World, we seek to raise the profile of wildlife atrocities, and in no way do we support the killing of baby seals. However, rather than demonising small groups of people, we wish to provide a platform for communication and inclusion, and pave the way for a future where humans and animals can live harmoniously.
By Natalie Kyriacou
Director, My Green World.