An Alternative Perspective on Seal Hunting

In a vivid black and white series, Yoanis Menge dismantles the propaganda about the harmful effects of seal hunting. 

© Yoanis Menge, from the series, Hakapik

As he was living in Paris and about to move back to his native Magdalen Islands, on the North Eastern coast of Canada, Yoanis Menge was struck by the advertising of an animal defense organisation. The photograph depicted a seal armed with a cudgel, ready to break a baby’s face. “I really questioned this photograph and thought it was about time to show this reality from another perspective”, he remembers.

Born and raised in this region of Canada where hunting – including seal hunting – has shaped not only local history, but its current culture and socio-economical structure, he knew the other side of the story. “Hunting is in every tale, song, illustration, and it is essential to the sustainability of these regions. In Nunavut even more so. I realised that Inuits as a people would not have survived without seal hunting because when everything is gone, including deer and moose, only seals remain.” And this is still accurate today, when groceries are 4 to 5 times more expensive than in the rest of the country, and vegetables are rotten by the time they land on the store shelves.

© Yoanis Menge, from the series, Hakapik

When Greenpeace embarked on a mission to stop seal hunting on the 1970’s, the situation was different. The Canadian government had no regulation nor systems of control and the whole world came to hunt in these waters. “It’s not the case anymore, and it’s quite the opposite. Laws have been implemented and the population of grey seals, which was around 1.5 million in the 1980’s, has increased to reach 8 million. Such a population puts a lot of pressure on the local ecosystem as seals are great predators and eat about 2 tons of food per year.” Sensationalism used by NGOs still prevents such facts from coming to light. “I wanted to show this reality from the human, social, and economic perspectives, without hiding the hunt”, he says.

Far from beautifying the truth, Menge opted for the hard and honest approach. He first earned his license, which would allow him to board a hunter’s boat, and passed the even harder test of gaining the hunters’ trust. The strict protocol of seal hunting, and particularly the obligation to break the animal’s crane with a Hakapik (which gives its name to the series) had damaged the image of seal hunting, but he didn’t avoid it.

© Yoanis Menge, from the series, Hakapik

His five year-long reportage is close to the action, compiling a rare documentation of the rituals and precise movements of the hunters, the community life on board, the waiting, the frozen landscape and the risks they are exposed to. “The European boycott is only moral. 2% of seals are killed every year while we would actually need 5% to regulate their population. What troubles me is that the colonialist mentality continues and has dire consequences for locals. The skin of a seal, which was sold for 100 dollars before the boycott in 2010, has dropped to 30 dollars”, he explains. “People buy products from China while denying how and at what cost they are done. And they say fur is bad? It may ease their conscience, but it’s illogical.”

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Yoanis Menge lives on the Magdalen Islands, Canada, and he is a member of KAHEM collective, which promotes an exchange of ideas and reflection upon the documentary practice.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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