Ringed seals are the "daily bread" of many northern peoples. The Inuit of Greenland and Arctic Canada particularly are heavily dependent on ringed seals for food, and for skins for clothing and for sale. In some areas of the Arctic at least, the widespread and year-round existence of ringed seals made and make indeed human life possible.
Ringed seals, or "natseq", can be hunted year-round, even during the dark months, and have therefore always been the most reliable source of daily necessities for the lives of northern peoples. Ringed seals have provided a stable supply of meat and blubber for food, heating and lightning, as well as skins for essential commodities such as "kamiks", skin clothing, tent coverings, bladder floats ("avataqs") and other equipment essential for the survival and success of Inuit hunting communities. Even the means of transportation to hunting grounds has been facilitated through the use of ringed seal products. Skins from ringed seals and bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) is used to cover the fragile frames of the kayaks, and was also formerly used to cover the larger "umiaks" that were used for transportation of whole families, while seal meat is still the essential "fuel" for the dogs that pull the sleds (Heide-Jørgensen and Lydersen 1998). The seals also plays an immense role in Greenlandic mythology.
Ringed seals, particularly in North and East Greenland, remain very important as a source of food for both humans and sled dogs (Rosing-Asvid 2010).
Ringed seals skins also have commercial value, although less today than at some times in the past (Reeves et al. 1998, Teilmann and Kapel 1998), as they had in the past in some areas of northwestern Russia (Belikov and Boltunov 1998). The sale of the skins of young ringed seals continues to be an important source of cash income in Arctic Canada and Greenland (Rosing-Asvid 2010), although it has been drastically reduced in the last decades, because of the anti-sealing campaigns and the resulting 1983 and 2009 bans in the EU. Regardless of the sustainability of the Greenlandic seal hunting and the Inuit exemption, allowing Greenlandic sealskin and other products to be sold on the European market, the hunters and the sealskin business in Greenland are marked by the EU bans, although the Inuit exemption render possible to export of sealskins from Greenland to the EU and place them on the market if the skins are certified according to Regulation no 737/2010. Read more about the EU ban on sealskins here.
Ringed seal skins drying in West Greenland. Photos: F. Ugarte
In 2004, NAMMCO hosted a Workshop on Hunting Methods for Seals and Walrus, the report of which provides information on ringed seal hunting techniques (NAMMCO 2004).
Ringed seals are hunted using a variety of methods, depending on the habitat, season and available equipment. Methods used in Arctic Canada and Greenland include open water shooting from dinghies, stalking and shooting basking seals on the ice in the spring, harpooning and/or shooting at breathing holes, and netting using nets set in open water or under the ice (Reeves et al. 1998, Teilmann et al. 1998, Furgal et al. 2002, WWF 2013). In Canada, during the pupping season, the birth lairs of the highly-valued whitecoat pups are sought using dogs, or by looking for slight irregularities in the snowdrifts on the ice. The young seal is captured by jumping on the roof of the snow-covered lair, crashing through it and preventing the pup from diving down the breathing hole. In Russia, ringed seals are hunted by shooting on the ice or in open water, and by netting (Belikov and Boltunov 1998).
The way of hunting ringed seals in Greenland follow a seasonal cycle (Government of Greenland 2012). During the open-water season in summer and autumn, most ringed seals are shot from boats. Netting in open water is most effective in October - November when the seals are unable to see the net due to decreasing light intensity and when the sea-ice has not yet formed. During winter, most ringed seals are caught in nets under the solid ice. Some ringed seals are also shot at their breathing holes, quickly followed by the use of a harpoon, which will ensure a swift kill. In spring when the seals haul out on the ice to bask, they are easy targets for experienced hunters who use white covering screens to sneak up on the seal to an appropriate shooting distance. When the ice breaks up, seals are shot along the ice edge or in cracks. The Greenlandic ringed seal hunt comprises predominantly young immature seals (Rosing-Asvid 2010).
Hunting seals using nets under the sea ice is particularly common in Northern Greenland, where no other hunting methods are possible during the months of winter darkness (in the North this period extends from October to March). Using seal nets requires much skill in finding the right location for the net and handling the "tooq", a long-handled wooden ice-chipping too used to make holes in the ice and draw the net under the ice.
Net-hunting in West Greenland. Net-hunting for feeding the dogs during a trip to the halibut fishing ground, at about 3 hours from Kullorsuaq.The skin is packed carefully for further sale. Photos: Fernando Ugarte
Hunting on the ice is performed during spring when ringed seals haul out near their breathing holes. The hunter hides behind a white covering screen of canvas while he slowly crawls toward the seal until he has reached an appropriate shooting distance. The seal should preferably be hit in the head and die immediately, otherwise it may reach its breathing hole and be lost.
|Stalking after a basking ringed seal. Photos: Fernando Ugarte|
As with all marine mammal hunts, struck-and-lost, the failure to retrieve an animal that has been killed or injured by the hunter, is an issue in ringed seal hunts. Struck-and-lost rates vary widely, depending on the type of hunt, environmental conditions and hunter experience among other factors. They could be as high as 60% in some areas and season for specific capture method (Reeves et al. 1998). The problem is exacerbated in late spring and early summer with seals hunted in open water, because at that period the seals are thin and consequently sink more easily. Special care must be taken to avoid losing animals in such situations. In net hunting, seals caught in nets are rarely lost, and the struck-and-lost rate is therefore at an absolute minimum. The NAMMCO Workshop on Struck and Lost (NAMMCO 2006) and the NAMMCO Workshop on Best Practices in Sealing (NAMMCO 2009) provided information on this topic as well as recommendations to facilitate monitoring, increase killing efficiency and reduce the incidence of struck-and-lost in all types of marine mammal hunts.