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With seal-hunt initiative, Mi’kmaq elders, Nova Scotia agency seek to revive lost practice – and controversial industry

May 12, 2024
Joef Bernard, 5, of Eskasoni, Nova Scotia, learns from his father of the same name how to work a seal hide with tools fashioned from the shin bones of a moose.STEVE WADDEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Globe and Mail: As a boy, Charles Doucette remembers his father pulling into the driveway with a grey seal carcass in the back of his pickup truck. Noel Doucette, a long-time chief of Potlotek First Nation, had shot the animal with a hunting rifle and butchered it on a beach near the community on Unama’ki, or Cape Breton Island, in northeastern Nova Scotia in the 1970s.

In their front yard, the older man instructed his son how to scrape the thick white blubber off the hide, boil it in a large metal drum over an outdoor fire, and stretch the silvery pelt across a wooden frame.

These skills were mostly lost among Mi’kmaq owing to colonialist practices – the banning of traditional medicine, limiting access to natural resources and overharvesting.

But a few elders including Mr. Doucette, 61, and his brother Quentin, who remember eating the rich, oily meat and rendering bottles of seal oil into medicine as children, are reviving the practice.

Both are working with Perennia, a provincial development agency that, for the past five years, has organized grey seal hunts around the coastline of Cape Breton and is working to build a seal industry in Nova Scotia.

“We’re trying to bring back that knowledge of how to hunt them,” said Mr. Doucette, one of the trainers and the manager of Potlotek Fisheries.

Perennia’s initiative, funded by provincial and federal government programs, is still in its pilot phase, said the agency’s manager of seafood Ashley Sprague. But she said the goal is a commercial seal fishery, focused on using every part of the animal, which would generate economic opportunities for Mi’kmaq and rural coastal communities in Nova Scotia.

This aerial view shows seals on Ile Dorion Beach, a protected island of Les Iles-de-la-Madeleine, Que. on May 30, 2023.SEBASTIEN ST-JEAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The agency is exploring ways to process organs and meat for the high-end pet-food industry, producing omega-3 oil for the supplement market, and tapping into the traditional seal fur and leather markets. “If we can use the whole carcass and every organ and get value from each of those pieces, it makes it a viable industry,” Ms. Sprague said.

A seal harvesting industry will also address local concerns about grey seal predation on wild commercial fish stocks, she added.

The number of grey seals has increased by 30 times since the 1960s, but growth has slowed in recent years. The last time Atlantic grey seals were surveyed, in 2021, the population was estimated at 366,400 – a modest 1.5-per-cent increase year-to-year, according to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

Grey seals are potentially affecting the health of fish stocks, particularly in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence where they were shown to have a negative impact on the recovery of Atlantic cod, said DFO spokesperson Tomie White. He added that grey seals have also been preying on other depleted species such as white hake and winter skate.

For decades, animal-rights groups with celebrity backers such as Brigitte Bardot and Paul McCartney have condemned the Atlantic seal harvest, the vast majority of which is for harp seals, which breed off the coast of southern Labrador and northern Newfoundland, and near the Îles-de-la-Madeleine and in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This led the European Union to ban exports of Canadian seal products in 2010 with the exception of those from traditional hunts by Indigenous communities.

Since then, quotas have gone unfulfilled for years, despite the Canadian government, in 2017, establishing National Seal Products Day to aid the floundering industry, launching an Indigenous seal product certification program, and providing $3-million to market seal products.

A hunter heads towards a harp seal during the annual East Coast seal hunt in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence around Quebec’s Iles de la Madeleine, on March 25, 2009.ANDREW VAUGHAN/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Over the past five years, the grey seal harvest has fluctuated from under 100 animals to just more than 2,000. Seventy were killed this year, Ms. Sprague said, as rough weather curtailed the hunt. She said there are 25 licensed seal harvesters in the province and many more from various Mi’kmaq communities have started or signed up for training over the past few years.

The Nova Scotia harvest usually takes place on sandy beaches where seals lounge, Mr. Doucette said, mostly on Hay Island on the eastern coast or Henry Island on the western side of Cape Breton. It’s done when seals are young – past the stage of having white fur, which has been outlawed in Canada since 1987 – but just after they’ve weaned, at about one month old.

“It’s kind of like a dance because obviously he doesn’t want to be hit, he wants to escape. You’ve got to position yourself so you can hit him properly and quickly dispatch him. You never want him to suffer. You want it to be over quick. Then you flip him and cut him,” Mr. Doucette said.

After the animals bleed out, the meat is separated from the hide and the blubber.

Since 2014, a seal hunting training course has been required to obtain a harvesting licence from DFO. This includes performing what the federal government refers to as the three-step humane killing process.

The seal’s skull is struck with either a firearm, hakapik or club. Then the harvester checks to see if the seal is dead or irreversibly unconscious. An artery under the front flippers is severed, the seal is bled out and then skinned.

Last month, about 30 people gathered on Eskasoni First Nation to learn about the hunt from Perennia representatives. In a room overlooking Bras d’Or Lake, a few women and about 30 young men looking for work listened to Ms. Sprague give details on the initiative. The Globe and Mail was asked not to report specifics over fears of backlash from seal hunt opponents.

Cape Breton has the highest unemployment rate in the province (11.3 per cent in 2023), and in Eskasoni, it’s even higher.

Joef Bernard, a band councillor and well-known local hunter and trapper, said he’s supportive of a seal harvest industry “as long as they can make a living off it sustainably.”

“The more people that learn the better,” he said. “Because that was taken away from us and no one knows how to hunt seal any more.”

Tony Sylliboy of the Eskasoni Fish and Wildlife Commission, whose role is to acquire knowledge from elders and pass it on to community members, sees it as a way to revitalize his culture and help the economically disadvantaged. Few have ever eaten seal meat, which he says tastes like frozen strawberries drenched in oil and a bit like rabbit. “We were seal hunters. We were walrus hunters too,” said Mr. Sylliboy, who signed up for the training.

“It gives me a sense of pride to have people involved in a lost tradition.”

Others are skeptical about viability.

Barry Kent MacKay, a board member of Animal Alliance of Canada, said there has been no sustainable market for products derived from grey seals since electricity replaced marine oil. The “cost of acquiring and marketing such products considerably exceeds return, with no chance at profit,” he said in a statement. “While we don’t oppose tax money helping those in need, we would rather it was in promoting profitable and sustainable endeavours.”


With a report from The Canadian Press