What follows is the environmental equivalent of invoking Hitler's name in an argument. I wanted to talk about clubbing seals today. The term "seal clubbing" was, I thought for the longest time, merely a figure of speech used to describe folks who did not hold environmental values in the highest regard. Wow was I wrong. It's a real thing. It really is. And now to ruin your breakfast, here is a glimpse at what it looks like:
Now I should probably learn more about current practice in Canada, but as I once understood the law in Canada it was that a certain number of seals (e.g. 200,000) are offered for free on a first-come first-served basis to willing hunters. The seals are only available for "harvest" early in the Spring when ice floes with the baby seals are navigable in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off of Prince Edward Island. There are two issues here, and they are related.
The first issue has nothing at all to do with markets or governments or property or anything like that. Anyone with young kids (or teenagers or themselves) will recognize it. It needs a name. I don't have a name for it. But basically it's this: just because you can do something does not mean you ought to do something. The subprime mortgage fiasco is a case in point. Forget the awful narratives about whether it was a failure of government or a failure of markets or both — one thing that was going on was that it was easy for people to turn houses into ATM machines. It was cheap for people to turn houses into ATM machines. But nothing compelled them to do it. Just because right now I can go to Wegmans with the $40 in my pocket and purchase 16 pints of the Ben & Jerry's that is on sale does not mean that I should spend my money that way and it certainly does not mean that I ought to eat it all.
The same goes for clubbing seals. Individuals don't have to treat animals that way, they really don't. And this has nothing at all to do with markets or governments. Certainly having a government rule that says "Don't club seals" would not change human nature and won't change folks' inherent desire to do things like this. The second issue is that the government policy of awarding communal rights is partly responsible for this gruesome outcome. Why? If the first X seals are free on a first-come, first-served basis, it should not be shocking that rapid and brutal hunting techniques are employed. Anyone ever shop on Black Friday? Do shoppers, once the doors open at 5am, politely sort through the shelves as they get the "limited time and quantity" offers. Not a chance people, not a chance. It is gruesome. People get stomped. Stores are basically ransacked. We see the same problem with some ocean fisheries. In an effort to manage overfishing some communities have limited fishing seasons to a couple of days (or in some cases a couple of hours). Is it any wonder that under those rules enormous investments in rapid fishing technologies are developed, some which cause massive destruction to the ocean environment? Now I am sure the particular environmental conditions on the ice floes and the length of the season have something to do with the way the industry is set up, but I'll bet you more than a donut that there are myriad ways to establish property rights to seals themselves or to areas where seals live that would lead to far more humane treatment of the animals.
I imagine you might wish to argue that there is a third issue here, but I am going to reject it. You might wish to say that the third issue is that people want the seal skins and furs for clothes, and perhaps that "the market" is to blame as well for this. But what, I ask, is a "market"? It is simply one of many possible ways for heterogeneous people to cooperate. A market (or other cooperation mechanism) arises due to some other inherent forces – in this case the desire to have a seal coat (which, by the way, seems to be marketed by the Canadian government). If these coats could not be bought and sold in a store, does that mean the desire to have them would go away? Does it mean that the opportunity for gain in delivering them goes away? Not at all.
Now, you might wish to impugn markets for making it easier to realize the sorts of desires that inhere in people, but then again, these very markets have the potential to deliver a more ethical outcome as well. If consumers of seal coats desire to have their animals treated humanely when they are harvested (is this an oxymoron?) "the market" would surely deliver it. It is not "the market" that is the problem, the problem again seems to be that people don't seem to care that the seal was clubbed. I can, if you wish, find a reason to indict markets here, but it would be on public goods grounds. Perhaps that's for another post. In tomorrow's post, we'll examine a brief manifestation of this principle in another setting. Stay tuned.
UPDATE: One of our grad students, Andrew Davis, knows a heck of a lot more about this than I do!
Having grown up next to the biggest seal hunt in the world, and as someone who enjoys eating seal, has seen a seal be shot, etc, I feel qualified here.
A lot of the pictures can get messy because it's required to cut a vital artery on a seal immediately. This keeps the seal from flopping around and dying slowly or being skinned alive. Clubbing – though really a native hooked tool is used much more often than a straight club – has survived a lot of legal challenges because as far as I know it actually is pretty efficient at minimizing suffering.
With respect to the quota issue, I think any excessive speed is put down to avoiding weather issues. You don't want to ride out a storm on a boat in the middle of an ice field. At least, there's no impetus to get my seals first – the quota is historically nonbinding. More than half of the government-allocated maximum catch is usually not harvested.
Anyway, for me, I don't see this as really any different as what happens inside a slaughterhouse, except happens outside – if anything, there's more monitoring.
Indeed Andrew, all excellent insights. It is particularly enlightening to see the point you are suggesting about monitoring given our post on Ostrom last week. Further, I should have linked to data on seal populations. If the communal rights were truly harmful (ecologically), we'd see declines in harvests and population – I do not believe that we have in fact seen such a thing.