After nearly two decades of funneling government money into the annual seal hunting industry, Norway has announced that it is canceling all subsidies, a move that could spell the end of the commercial hunts.
Lawmakers voted last week to take a 12-million-kroner ($1.6 million USD) subsidy for the commercial seal hunt out of the the 2015 budget. The subsidies were the equivalent of paying fishermen $167 for each seal they killed. The loss of government subsidies, which previously covered some 80 percent of the industry's revenue, could knock Norway off the shrinking list of countries that hunt seals commercially. The other remaining countries are Canada, Greenland and Namibia.
"The move should have an impact on the number of seals killed," said Sheryl Fink, campaigns director for Canada wildlife for the International Fund for Animal Welfare and an expert on seal hunting. "After almost two decades of funding the industry, the government has decided to refocus its financial priorities, and financing the seal hunt is not one of them."
It's not clear whether the decision will actually negatively impact the hunt yet; it's possible that a private investor could step in to fund it. But Fink says she thinks that the loss of government funds is a huge blow for the industry. This, coupled with a waning demand for seal fur and oil, the primary products sold by the industry, have led to a major decline in seal hunting lately. In 2014, only three hunting boats participated, landing a catch of 11,980 harp seals, compared with a catch of more than 20,000 harp seals in 2005.
A few elements have contributed to the steep decline of the sealing industry in recent years. One is a 2010 ban on importing seal products passed by the EU. Another is public awareness about the brutality of the hunts. Hunters use clubs or spiked tools called hakapiks to kill seals, without stunning them first. Most of the time, the seals are just-weaned pups, less than three months old.
While proponents and fishermen argue that the seal hunt is traditional and used to keep the seal populations in check, Fink argues that keeping seal populations robust benefits the entire ecosystem.
"There is no scientific evidence to support the idea that killing seals helps the ecosystem," Fink said. "We now know that top predators play important ecological roles. Removing large numbers of predators doesn't get a balancing effect - what happens is it tends to destabilize the ecosystem."
It's possible that Norway's decision could have some impact on the seal hunt in Canada - the largest marine mammal hunt in the world with a quota of 400,000 seals every year. To learn more about Canada's seal hunt - and to find out about ways to stop it - check out IFAW's campaign.