"We're the ones who are supposed to have the big brains. So let's use them to make the right decisions. Animals belong to the planet, not any nation," Nigel Barker explains in his cool, somewhat faded British accent, as a helicopter whisks him and a small crew over frozen seas in eastern Canada.
In A Sealed Fate?, the 45-minute advocacy documentary Barker made about Canada's annual harp seal hunt, the celebrated fashion photographer traveled with the Humane Society of the U.S. to raise awareness about the controversial practice. A judge on the huge hit America's Next Top Model, Barker has been focusing his lenses and his celebrity status on the hunt for the past few years. I had a chance to see the film and hear Barker speak at the recent Go Green Expo in NYC.
Seal hunting was outlawed in the U.S. decades ago, but the annual hunt in Canada is the world's largest slaughter of marine mammals, taking hundreds of thousands each year. More than 95% of those are less than 3 months old, according to HSUS. In contrast Russia recently banned hunting of seals less than 1 year old. Sadly, many hunted harp seals never had the chance to taste solid food or take a swim, and they are utterly helpless, as well as completely unafraid of the hunters. According to HSUS, a study found that in 66% of cases hunters failed to ensure a seal was dead before they skinned it (a panel of scientists concluded in 2001 that 42% of seal carcasses sampled displayed non-lethal injuries, meaning they were possibly conscious while skinned). The pelts are made into fur for fashions in Europe and Asia, and the carcasses that remain after skinning are generally left on the ice to rot.
In A Sealed Fate?, HSUS chief Wayne Pacelle -- riding in a chopper with Barker said, "People say 'we should leave the hunters alone.' Well the products aren't used locally. So they want American and European money without our values. It seems to me that you can't have it both ways." In fact, according to the film seal hunting in Canada is only a supplemental income for those who partake in it. The total value of a hunt is only $12 million to $15 million, and each hunter makes a few thousand dollars during the brief season. According to HSUS sealing accounts for only 2% of Canada's fisheries income.
A thrust of the film is that marine ecotourism is much more valuable, in terms of money brought in and employment. Not only is whale watching currently worth more to Canada than the seal hunts, but it is worth more than what the country's whaling industry had been before it was shut down in 1972, according to HSUS.
Part of the film is filled with joy and wonder, as the team flies 30 miles off the coast of Prince Edward Island to witness the birth of harp seals, in -27 degrees. Barker took fantastic shots of the newborn seals, expressive with their big eyes, playful like puppies, and covered in soft white fur. They have no fear of human beings.
Despite the happy events there is a strong sense of foreboding, which builds gradually and powerfully through the film, toward the hunt. "There's blood on the ice from the birth, and that's the only kind of blood we want to see," said Barker. "Without a doubt their fur is more beautiful on them than it will ever be on us."
Much of the film centers on the challenges of observing the seal hunt. When Barker and team fly back to Canada a few weeks after their first visit to the ice floes, they encounter a number of obstacles, including the regulations that require observers to obtain a separate permit for each day they want to be in the hunting grounds -- which it should be noted comprise a vast area across multiple provinces. (There are no safe havens for seals off limits to hunters, not even any parks or sanctuaries.) Observers are not permitted to be closer than half a nautical mile to hunters, meaning the best chance is via helicopter, an expensive undertaking. Just securing the permit took an hour and a half, per day.
Barker and his team encounter bad weather and changes in hunter plans, and they have a difficult time prying information out of the Canadian government, even though according to the activists fisheries managers are required by law to disclose the location of hunting.
The team eventually found several sealing boats, but they kept missing the actual slaughter. What they found were rivers of blood running over the frozen seas, and mounds of blobby skinned carcasses (shut from far away and hazy). The dramatic tension kept building. The helicopter seemed tiny against the vast expanse of ice.
Finally, Barker and co. find a boat that is actively hunting. They film burly hunters as they hop out of their boat unto the ice, and run up to the helpless seals, clubbing them in the head. At one point a seal can be seen writhing on one of the fisherman's hooks. It is bloody and surreal, in part because of the intense buildup to the horror in the film, and in part because it is shot from so far away. There is no native sound, only an odd, almost psychedelic soundtrack that doesn't seem to really fit.
The brutality doesn't play out as graphically as one might imagine, in part because it is distant, and in part, I believe, because modern audiences are familiar with hyper-detailed gore from movies and television. Yes most of what we commonly see is fictional, but that means the real thing can have a detached quality, as if we can't really believe what we're seeing.
A Sealed Fate? makes a compelling argument. At one point the voice of an anonymous fishermen is heard over scenes of picturesque Prince Edward Island. The man says that the seals need to be hunted because there are too many of them, and they eat so many fish that they take food off of people's plates. This same argument is still made by Japanese whaling officials, despite the fact that high school-level ecology tells us that natural systems do best with their own balance, and that since seals and fish have co-evolved over countless generations, their numbers stay in sync. In many cases prey suffer if natural predators are removed.
Harp seals are currently not endangered, though with the specter of global warming looming, as well as pollution and over fishing, one wonders how long that will last. Some 5 million harp seals migrate to the region for breeding, and each year the hunting quota is set around 300,000. Barker pointed out that a few years ago that remained unchanged, despite the fact that some 250,000 had already died as a result of early ice melt.
At the Go Green Expo Barker said that he funded the film independent of HSUS, although he did benefit from shared transportation and expertise. He said he went north trying to keep an open mind, especially in terms of dealing with locals. He said he estimated that 80% of locals he talked to indicated that they opposed the hunt -- many said "they were embarrassed by it" -- but all were afraid to speak on camera. According to HSUS the vast majority of Canadians oppose seal hunting, but they are afraid to challenge the status quo.
"We went into seal hunter and fishermen bars," said Barker at the expo. "I told them I wanted them to tell us their story, in their words. But they just told me to get out."
As the film also points out, seal hunting is dangerous, with loss of human life frequent. (It's not hard to see why when you get a look at the cracking ice and rough weather.) In the short time the team is in the area, a TV report broadcast news of a capsized sealing boat.
Barker told the crowd that he had always felt strongly about animals, and that he got involved in the seal issue because he realized that his industry -- fashion -- was ultimately to blame for the slaughter. "Let's stop wearing fur, we don't need it," he said.
Barker and HSUS have been calling on consumers around the world to boycott Canadian seafood to put pressure on the government to outlaw the hunt. They're also pressuring the EU to ban imports of seal products. They believe the brutality of the hunt means it cannot be morally justified. What do you think?
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