Dr Nikolas Sellheim on The Seal Hunt: Cultures, Economies and Legal Regimes

By Lana Ollier

© Nikolas Sellheim


Lana Ollier and Nikolas Sellheim


For the January edition of Polar Matters, Lana Ollier, Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative, spoke to Nikolas Sellheim – one of the world’s leading researchers on the marine mammal hunt in the Arctic, the sub-Arctic and Japan – about his newly published book The Seal Hunt: Cultures, Economies and Legal Regimes, as well as sealing and whaling more broadly.
At present, Dr Sellheim is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Sustainability Science, University of Helsinki, and the Editor of Polar Record, the quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal managed by Scott Polar Research Institute and published by Cambridge University Press. Prior to this, he worked for the CAFF Working Group of the Arctic Council in Akureyri, Iceland, and for the international secretariat of the University of the Arctic (UArctic) in Rovaniemi, Finland. He conducted his first post-doc at the Polar Cooperation Research Centre at Kobe University, Japan. Before becoming a legal scholar, Sellheim worked as a veterinary assistant in a veterinary practice in Berlin, Germany.
In this interview, Dr Sellheim discusses why sealing and whaling require a more nuanced gaze and understanding, and how international law could be improved to better account for the human and cultural dimension of both practices. We conducted this interview late last year. Since then, Japan decided to leave the International Whaling Commission. However, in this interview, Dr Sellheim does explain the demand Japan put forward prior to leaving the IWC, and offers insight into why this might present a threat for the Commission as a whole.

Tell our readers briefly who you are and what you do? 

My name is Nikolas Sellheim, and I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Sustainability Science at the University of Helsinki. My current postdoctoral project deals with the role of local communities in international conservation law. More concretely, I look at five international regimes dealing with the conservation of biodiversity: the International Whaling Commission (IWC) under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (Whaling Convention); the Convention on Migratory Species (Bonn Convention); CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention); the CBD (the Convention on Biological Diversity, also known as the Biodiversity Convention); and the Convention on Wetlands (also known as the Ramsar Convention).  I look at the role local communities play within those regimes. 

In a couple of sentences, what is your book The Seal Hunt: Cultures, Economies and Legal Regimes about?

The idea was to write a book that comprehensively looks at seal hunting cultures and seal hunting legal regimes worldwide. As opposed to whaling, there was just no comprehensive overview on the socio-economic impact of sealing on seal-hunting regions and cultures. The book falls into two parts. For the first part, my approach was to take a particular region and look at the prevailing sealing cultures and legal regimes in that region. These regions are currently composed of different countries, embedding them in very different national legal regimes. But I also considered regional and global regimes or multilateral regimes in the present as well as the past. The other big part of the book deals with the EU ban on the trade in seal products.  

Which constituencies of readership might find your book most useful?

Politicians would be a good target audience. When it comes to researchers, those dealing with human rights, traditions and cultures would be a good audience. I would also like to reach those people that make the decisions – in particular, in the European Union. In reaching a broader audience, the problem is that scientific literature is so incredibly expensive. Therefore, I am thinking of writing a popular science book as well.  

As I understand, your current research no longer focuses on the Arctic directly, but rather on local communities and nature preservation on a broader scale. Why is the Arctic relevant for your research nevertheless?

I used to have a much stronger focus on the Arctic. During my PhD, where I specifically focused on the seal hunt, around 95% of my research was actually focussed on the Arctic – although the seal hunt is not limited to the Arctic. My focus has therefore shifted away from the Arctic, although the Arctic normatively continues to play a very big role in my research. 

What does ‘normatively’ mean exactly in this context?  

The Arctic is relevant explicitly or implicitly in many aspects of my research. A lot of the issues we are dealing with are very relevant in the Arctic, largely because we find a lot of conflicts between state-imposed decisions and local interests in the Arctic, particularly when it comes to natural resource extraction. For example, three out of the four countries that engage in subsistence whaling under the IWC are Arctic countries.

Is this strong geographic focus reflected in international mammal conservation law?

I tried to make the point at the last IWC meeting that a lot of the member states are either Arctic Council member states or Arctic Council observer states. However, the IWC is not an observer to the Arctic Council. Nevertheless, the Scientific Committee of the IWC and the Arctic Council cooperate on marine mammal issues. If it plays a special role, it is really implicit. For example, when, in the IWC, references are made to harsh living conditions, that is an indirect reference to the living conditions in the Arctic. At this point in time, I would say the Arctic does not play an exclusive role when it comes to international marine mammal conservation law, but I might change my mind once I have made further progress in my research.  

What spiked your personal interest in marine mammal issues?

I have always been interested in marine mammals, but more on a preservation side. I think that it is rather normal for teenagers in Germany to be against seal hunting or whaling without really knowing anything about it. This paradox – of generally opposing seal hunting or whaling without really knowing anything about it – in most Western European countries started coming back to me when I started my Master’s in Polar Law in Iceland, where I saw whale meat in the supermarkets, where I went on a whale watching tour and when I heard Icelanders say that they wonder why people are so emotional about whales. This is really also how the idea for my PhD was first born. I started talking to the now-Director of the Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi, Timo Koivurova, who was the supervisor of my Master’s and doctoral theses, about the EU Ban on Trade in Seal Products, and we discussed how the Inuit were really annoyed by this – although there was an exemption for Inuit in the law. This got me thinking about this whole other perspective on the issue of marine mammal conservation – that is, the perspective of people who are actually targeted by the EU ban – meaning the commercial sealers. Most of them were non-indigenous, and I figured that the ban must have put them in a difficult position, but no one was really talking about them. Based on this conversation with Timo Koivurova, I developed the subject for my PhD.

Why is seal hunting and whaling so often perceived as something really negative?

This is a question I have been struggling with for a long time now. I think there are several reasons for that. One of the main reasons is that our mindsets have been influenced by how we see those poster species: whales, elephants, seals, tigers – charismatic mega fauna species. This is mainly because they have brilliant PR, and it is not particularly difficult to make someone fall in love with a seal pup – because they are just incredibly cute. More than that, we do, however, tend to generalise a lot when it comes to those species and in particular whales. When we talk about the whale in general, we proclaim that the whale is endangered, that it sings whale songs and that it is intelligent. Those kind of narratives have shaped our perception, but they do not necessarily reflect the biophysical reality of these whale species, but are rather rooted in a desire of well-funded and well-operated organisations to stop the hunt on whales. Of course, when the environmental movement started, many whales were horribly over-hunted, and particularly the large whales, so there was a certain justification at this point in time, but it has become a self-reinforcing process.

Are there strong cultural differences in how people perceive whaling and sealing globally and why?

Yes, there are gigantic cultural differences. On the one hand, these are rooted in philosophical perceptions and ethics related to animal treatment and human-animal relations, particularly when it comes to the poster species. These exist especially between Japan and the Western world. That there are significant differences, for example, becomes visible in the way aquariums are being managed in Japan, as compared to Germany. The other thing is that when it comes to sealing in Canada – in particular, Atlantic Canada, it has been a part of the social-economic conditions for hundreds and hundreds of years. The same is, of course, true for Europe. However, the difference is that, in Newfoundland, sealing was one of the main pillars of the local economy. I think one third of the economy of Newfoundland was based on sealing. In Europe, sealing had never taken up such economic importance. In Europe, seals were perceived as something bad really. In Sweden and Finland, bounties were paid on seals – so fishermen were paid a certain amount of money when they would go out to hunt seals, because seals were damaging the fishing gear and, hence, compromising the fishing industries. A lot of people do not realise that those hunts for “marine management purposes” are still ongoing. There is an active seal hunt in the European Union, and places like the Åland Islands also advertise sport seal hunting. So even though there is an opposition to seal hunting in the political European Union, the overarching reality is that there continues to be seal hunting in the European Union – particularly in the Baltic Sea.

How are those two realities reconciled? 

The European Union does not ban seal hunting, but the trade in seal products. In that sense, it is still up to the member states to decide if they conduct seal hunting or not. There are also other conventions, which come into play, which protect certain species of seals. Based on those, specific seal species can or cannot be hunted. The hunts that are ongoing – in particular, in Sweden, Estonia and Finland – are marine management hunts, meaning that for those hunts, there are management plants in place. The European Union has prohibited the trade in the products stemming from those hunts. That amendment to the original regulation was put in place in 2015. Before 2015, non-profit trade was allowed from hunts carried out for marine management purposes, but after 2015, that clause was removed. Now seals are being hunted, killed and then being disposed of, and there is no compensation for the hunters’ effort to hunt seals in order to protect the fishing industries. This is not only particularly interesting as a research topic, but also as a legal case when it comes to human rights, responsible management and treatment of animals.

What are the concrete effects of those policies on commercial sealers globally?

Subsistence sealing and whaling is always equated with indigenous peoples – so there is basically no non-indigenous subsistence seal hunting. With that in mind, one should look at the commercial seal hunt in Canada and the subsistence hunt in Greenland. Both are essentially hunting the same species, and nowadays the Greenlandic seal hunt is numerically bigger than the commercial seal hunt in Newfoundland, simply because the markets for the commercially-hunted seals are pretty much gone. When I did my fieldwork in Newfoundland, the hunts were already numerically reduced, and the hunters had simply shifted to targeting other marine species. One has to bear in mind that sealers do not do this as a sole profession – they are fishermen first and foremost.

Secondly, when they are not able to hunt seals anymore, some of their annual income disappeared, but since there is a social security system in place, they have been compensated or have gained unemployment benefits. Unaccounted for, however, are the identity losses they face – that is the loss of community cohesion and increasing outmigration.

Additionally, it is important to look not only at the sealers themselves but also those that are working in the seal processing industry, because they do not have the option to shift to other species. An example would be those working in the actual plants where the fat is rendered into oil and the fur is tanned. Those people simply lost their jobs, were forced to move away, were forced into unemployment or forced to commute very long distances. While the commercial sealers do not really have a lobby, they have the international attention. The workers and the industry, on the other hand, do not have any kind of representation or attention. That is something I find very disturbing because they are the ones directly hit by declining markets. In Newfoundland, there used to be six or seven operating plants, and when I was there, only one was left. Now the sealing industry is actually coming back a little bit, because new markets are opening up in China. This leads to an increasing number of people being employed again, but I cannot say if this is an actual trend or just a development for the time being.

Could you elaborate on the distinction between commercial and subsistence hunting, and why it might be problematic?

The distinction between subsistence and commercial is tricky, deceptive and dishonest. It implies that subsistence sealers live in a bubble, and they are not in any way connected to the modern market economy, which of course they are. The fact that seal hunters in Greenland and Nunavut can still put their products on the European market because of the exemption completely negates the interlinkages between the Inuit seal hunts and the non-Inuit seal hunts. The trade pathways are exactly the same, and since there is no labelling system in place for Inuit and non-Inuit or subsistence and non-subsistence hunting, they cannot even be distinguished. I think this distinction is also discursively very difficult when it comes to the International Whaling Commission where non-indigenous communities have to beg for a catch quota, whilst based on international law, it is actually their right to provide for their families and communities with food, nutrition and security. In the end, we need to ask, would it be that bad if they engage in a limited amount of hunting for commercial purposes – to sell to their neighbouring communities or capitals – if it provides for them and is part of their overall contemporary socio-economic system. I personally do not think so, but it is a far reaching question.

Seal unloading

© Nikolas Sellheim

Would you propose other categories, keeping in mind that those species also need to be protected?

I have been thinking about this a lot, but I haven’t reached a conclusion yet. I think, first of all, the ethnic criteria should be abandoned; instead, marine mammal hunting should be informed by scientific findings. Additionally, I think it is also more important to limit hunting not only by who is doing it, but by how it is done. One could also consider different degrees of utilisation. 

The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO), for example, looks at the needs of local communities, irrespective of them being aboriginal or non-aboriginal. I think that makes more sense. Another example for a different allocation mechanism is Canada, where they introduced ‘personal use hunting’ under the current regulatory regime. That is, in essence, people see a seal, get on their boat, go and hunt the seal, and consume it. Essentially, that is subsistence hunting carried out by non-indigenous communities.  

So, in your opinion, we should allow some limited hunting for commercial purposes under international regimes?

When it come to the IWC, there will always be member states that want to continue whaling. Arctic countries are, of course, no exception here, and Canada left the IWC when the moratorium was adopted, because they did not want anyone to tell them what to do with their natural resources. Japan’s recent proposal to lift the moratorium, so as to allow some very limited small-scale coastal whaling, was just voted down, and now I am honestly very worried that Japan could leave the IWC altogether. If that happens, Japan would probably not be the only country,  but instead there would be other countries following. Should that happen, the IWC would lose a lot of funding, as Japan is a very large donor to the IWC. In the end, that would significantly weaken the IWC.

What else are your ideas to improve international schemes for marine mammal protection?

What should and what must be addressed, also from a legal human rights perspective, is the notion that any protection of any kind of species will also affect people. That should be the baseline for any kind of conservation regime. When you start to ban the hunt for any kind of species, this always implies that there are people hunting that species. This obviously raises the question of what happens to the hunters when you ban the hunt. My theory is that even though many regimes, in particular regimes dealing with conservation, are well-intended to ensure the conservation status of certain species, they may actually have the opposite effect – simply because they are not dealing with the incentive to hunt a species. In my opinion, this is a systemic flaw — meaning that most regimes do not deal with the incentive to poach. I think if you do not eradicate the incentive, poaching will remain a problem.


You can order your copy of The Seal Hunt: Cultures, Economies and Legal Regimes (Brill | Nijhoff, 2018) here.

Lana Ollier is a Fellow in the Geopolitics and Security Unit at Polar Research and Policy Initiative and leads its interview series ‘Polar Matters’. She holds a MSc in Environmental Policy and Regulation from the London School of Economics and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the Freie Universität of Berlin.
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