Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

One Man’s Meat is another Man’s Poisson:

Seals, Codfish and Me — an Understandable Trinity

Stashed several dozen stories back, somewhere amid the rambling, kilometers-long, undisciplined hodgepodge stuffing of this, my meandering blog, and under the title of SABLE ISLAND, I have recounted the true story of my most intimate and personal social encounter with a convention of seals in an amazingly improbable yet formal group situation. In all modesty I believe that the extraordinary social experience that took place that magical day between myself and several hundred seals was unique — as well as a cherished personal happening. But that happy event was far different from my first close encounter with these absorbing aquatic mammals. (Though I do have a hazy memory of eating seal-flipper soup during the long ago weeks I spent working around the Newfoundland coasts). But my first real-seal encounter occurred, now pungently remembered, was when our ship stopped in at Diana Bay, near Ungava Bay. An Eskimo gentleman (Inuits were still unknown as such to we southerners back in 1954) came into my cabin and offered me a seal skin as trade for a little tobacco. I readily gave him some tobacco but indicated that he could keep the seal skin. But he was adamant. The seal skin was mine. Several days later it was my shipmates in adjoining cabins who were adamant. Either the smelly sealskin went over the side or I did. Thus, my first brief encounter with seals was over. In truth I was just as pleased as were all other hands. On other occasions I have leaned over from my sounding launch to hold one-sided conversations with the odd overly-curious seal or sat quietly near small groups of them on rocky foreshores. I can remember visiting the University of Guelph’s seal study department for some reason decades ago — probably I was with the National Film Board at the time. Also, many of the Maritimers who manned our hydrographic launches during our six-month-long Arctic summer seasons spent their spring times as seal hunters out on the sea ice off Canada’s east coast. So, naturally, in the close confines of a 30-foot sounding launch, during fourteen-hour-long northern workdays running mile-upon-mile of echo-sounding lines, I often listened first hand to their lengthy, sober, love-hate stories of the exhausting weary weeks they spent during the cruel and bloody hunt. Tellingly, my crew, who were also fishermen at other times of the year, never quoted what nowadays is posed as a prime reason for the hunt: that the ravenous seals constantly gobble up all the cod to the brink of extinction, and so they have to be slaughtered to save the fish stocks. That desparately-manufactured placatory theory only became the plaintive cry of seal-hunt defenders after one cuddly species, represented by Brigitte Bardot, took the part of another cuddly species—the innocent little white-coat baby seals, whose pristine snow-white appearance was depicted in such sharp relief and deadly contrast when the brilliant crimson of their blood was splattered around the ice upon which their poor little battered bodies were depicted. That particular aspect of the hunt was later curbed by new regulations proscribing such bludgeoning of white-coat puppies. Though whether their protective mother seals still had to suffer business-as-usual skull smashing I don’t know. But I suppose it was meant well. But yet, I have a question — never answered: Why is it that hundreds of years ago, long before Europeans arrived and began commercial seal hunting, at a time when the unmolested seal populations must have been thriving enormously, how was it that the codfish, even more markedly, at that same time were inexplicably reported to have been so legendarily superabundant? Back in the 1950s I jigged many a big codfish for dinner. From Nova Scotia to Baffin Bay. Rankin Inlet, northwest Hudson Bay, was completely unpopulated then, not a single Eskimo to be seen. Nearby coastal waters were devoid of native fishermen and hunters for scores, 
hundreds, of miles. There were lots of seals around, though. Also the cod were wonderfully prolific. As were Arctic char. There’s a very big difference between native inhabitants hunting their traditional vital food source, as is their perfect and natural right, and the often insensitive and wasteful hunting by commercial interests.

brickbats and plaudits to:

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