مرکزی صفحہ Arctic Anthropology Morality, Practice, and Economy in a Commercial Sealing Community

Morality, Practice, and Economy in a Commercial Sealing Community

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52
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Arctic Anthropology
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10.3368/aa.52.1.71
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Morality, Practice, and Economy in a
Commercial Sealing Community
Nikolas Sellheim

Abstract. In small social groups dependent on specific resources, it is difficult to separate
actions, moral understandings, and the resource itself. It is the response to the affordances of a
given environment that shapes the moral framework of social interaction. Therefore, changes in
the market sphere also impact the conscious and unconscious actions relating to the affordances
of the environment, as well as a community’s socioeconomic values. It is argued that moral relativism is justified when it is approached through an “affordance lens,” meaning that if the role
and relevance of a resource for a community is not understood, its moral environment cannot be
understood either. With ethnographic data stemming from the 2013 sealing season in a fishingand-­sealing community in northern Newfoundland, this interplay of morality, practices, and
socioeconomic values is documented.

Introduction
The moral relativistic claims have been widely
criticized and the statement that “judgements issued from within one culture to another are therefore necessarily meaningless” (Laidlaw 2014:24)
does not withstand the scrutiny of intellectual
deliberation. Bernard Williams argued,
for standard relativism . . . it is always too early or
too late. It is too early, when the parties have no
contact with each other, and neither can think of
itself as “we” and the other as “they.” It is too late,
when they have encountered one another: the moment that they have done so, there is a new “we”
to be negotiated (Williams 2007:69).

This is undoubtedly true for peoples within an
explorer–explored dichotomy but only partly relates to traditional societies within a larger societal
framework for which resource affordances shape
the moral and socioeconomic environment.
In order to understand a specific set of moral
values it is necessary to understand the moral

environment in which it operates. This article examines how the seal hunt as part of the afford; ances
of the sea influences the moral structure of a small
fishing-and-­sealing community, exemplified by the
community of Woodstock, Newfoundland, Canada.
It further shows that conscious and unconscious
actions and practices on the sealing vessel itself
and within the community are directly linked to
the overarching moral determinant of being able to
provide for the community. The social and economic value of the seal hunt is discussed with a
direct reference to the interaction between community and market spheres of exchange (Gudeman
2001), engaging in a wider discussion on water as
a “theory machine” (Galison 2003) and change—
in this case economic. This article provides an
insight into the socioeconomic environment of
an activity that has been largely inaccessible for
outsiders. The lack of knowledge and the predetermined stances towards the hunt based on rather
outdated hunting conditions, and the inherent
neglect for the well-­being of the sealers and their

Nikolas Sellheim, Faculty of Law, University of Lapland, Yliopistonkatu 8,
96101 Rovaniemi, Finland; Nikolas.sellheim@ulapland.fi

ARCTIC ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 71–90, 2015 ISSN 0066-6939
© 2015 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

72

Arctic Anthropology 52:1

communities (Sellheim 2013), call for extensive
ethnographic analysis.

Methodology
The results of the analysis are based on distant
observation and participant observation in multitemporal fieldwork. The collected data has been
screened through the lens of affordances, values,
morality, and economy. Gibson’s theory of affordance (Gibson 1979:127) has undergone several
revisions and has contributed to a lively academic
debate within anthropology. While the concept
itself has not been altered, it has nevertheless been
subject to extension or redirection (see for example
Chemero 2003; Keane 2014). This article contributes to this debate by linking the affordances of the
seal as part of the marine ecosystem to the moral
and value-­based landscape in a remote, resource-­
based community, exemplified by the fishing and
commercial sealing community of Woodstock,
Newfoundland. The close linkage between affordances and the moral environment allows for a
“segmented moral relativism.” Segmented moral
relativism implies that the morality surrounding
one particular element of human life, such as the
seal, can only be understood when understanding
its particular affordances. The repercussions of the
affordance on the social fabric thus constitute one
segment of an overarching morality. No generalizing relativistic conclusions in the Boasian sense
can therefore be drawn on the morality of a given
society or community.
The commercial seal hunt has thus far not
been linked with an anthropology of morality and
accompanying debates on affordances, values, and
the interplay of the community and the market
spheres. The community of Woodstock therefore
serves as a first attempt to embed the commercial
seal hunt in a framework of anthropological inquiry. This is particularly relevant as in the commercial seal hunt several spheres of theoretical
approaches influence one another: while Gibson’s
affordance theory constitutes the theoretical basis
of the analysis, an anthropology of morality in a
seal-­hunting community is supplemented by an
anthropology of economy (Gudeman 2001). It is
shown how market fluctuations alter morals and
values in the community while certain affordances
themselves do not change. Given the limited scope
of the paper, however, a concluding discussion on
the topics raised is not possible and further research is needed.

Distant Observation
When I began research in 2011, my contacts in
Newfoundland were nonexistent. In order to
empirically understand the seal hunt and the

industry, the organization to contact was the Canadian Sealers’ Association (CSA) so as to establish
a sustainable exchange of information and learn
about the hunt and the industry from the sealers’
perspective.
The CSA, as the spearhead of the sealing
industry, has been the target of repeated verbal attacks and threats, making trust an important issue.
Upon contact, the CSA’s Director asked for further
information on the type and size of the institution
I work for, telephone number, and address before
any further information would be given (CSA
Director, personal communication 2011). Upon assurance that I did not intend to harm the CSA, its
employees, or the sealers, contact was established
and maintained via phone calls and email exchanges throughout 2012 until today. These initial
contacts with the sealing industry allowed for a
first consideration of the seal hunt beyond economics. Additionally, a week-long stay in Iqaluit,
Canada, in June 2012 for a gathering of Canadian
indigenous and nonindigenous hunters, trappers,
and sealers allowed for personal contacts and trust
building.

Multitemporal Fieldwork
The importance of returning to the field cannot
be underestimated for the deepening of acquired
knowledge (Howell and Talle 2011:3). Therefore,
fieldwork was conducted on two occasions and
on several locations in 2013 as “follow-­up visits
of samples” (Talle 2011:73). The participation in a
full season of the seal hunt occurred within three
weeks during April 2013 on the sealing-­vessel
Steff&Tahn, sailing from Woodstock, Newfoundland. Without shore leave I participated in the
complete hunting season, including preparation
and processing on land. Three weeks in April and
May 2013 were spent travelling to other sealing
communities in northern Newfoundland and to
the seal-­processing industry on the Avalon Peninsula. Return to the sealing industry, as well as
several sealing communities, occurred throughout
November 2013. Sustainable postfieldwork information exchange with the sealers, their families,
the CSA, and the sealing industry is ongoing. As
observers in the past used their onboard information on several occasions to paint a negative
picture of the seal hunt, finding a vessel to take me
on board proved therefore to be difficult. Through
the CSA’s continuous insurance prior to the fieldwork that I was not a threat to the sealing industry
and due to a phone call with a well-known and
respected sealer from La Scie, Newfoundland
(La Scie sealer, personal communication 2013), a
rather young skipper of 38 years accepted me—after long hesitation—as a participant observer on
his vessel the Steff&Tahn (Fig. 1).

Morality, Practice, and Economy in a Commercial Sealing Community

Figure 1. Sketch of the Steff&Tahn. Illustration by
Nikolas Sellheim.

Steff&Tahn is a vessel of 45 ft (13.7 m) in
length with an approximate width of 15 ft (4.6 m).
Most of the space in the aft part of the vessel is
used for storage, limiting living quarters to approximately 11 m2. The hunt lasted for approximately
12 days, seven of which were active hunting days.
Following the sea ice to find the seals, the boat, often zigzagging through the ice, covered a distance
of around 800 nautical miles (1,480 km) towards
the southern coast of Labrador and touching the
Strait of Belle Isle (Fig. 2).
The regulations under which the seal hunt
falls require the sealing vessels to report every
night to the Coast Guard—both on their position
and on the number of taken seals per day. Each
boat is allocated a daily catch of 400 seals with a
maximum limit of seal pelts, which was not to exceed 2,000 for the Steff&Tahn. Upon return to port,
1,987 pelts were landed.
In Woodstock, the crew of six greeted me
with hesitation, yet welcomingly. Conversely, my
host in Woodstock, the skipper’s father—a retired
fisherman and sealer—and mother greeted me very
openly. I quickly became known in the community as the “European who wants to go sealing.”
On board, the crew could not understand why an
outsider voluntarily joined a sealing vessel, and
the subliminal mistrust towards me and my intentions was broken after I thoroughly explained my
research and actively participated in the work of a
deckhand (i.e., striking, bleeding, and pelting seals).
My participation in the hunt was not bound
to any conditions or rules. Although in the beginning I was unable to understand the skipper due
to his traditional Newfoundland way of speaking,
I quickly understood I was not forced to anything
that I did not want, nor was I excluded from anything that I wanted to participate in. Control over
my role as a participant observer was therefore in

73

my hands alone. The Woodstockers, as well as the
crew, were happy about that fact that somebody
travels “all the way from Europe and bothers to
come to have a look.”
Interview participants were chosen based
on their knowledge and experience within the
seal hunt. This occurred in an unstructured
manner with the crew of the Steff&Tahn and in a
semistructured manner on land. Here, interview
participants from the community, from the sealing
industry, and academia were chosen based on their
expertise in order to draw a more representative
picture. To assess the significance of the hunt for
Woodstock directly, semistructured, and nonrepresentative interviews occurred with Woodstockers
of both sexes and of mixed age groups. Given the
small size of the community, findings allow for
inductive conclusions.

Canada’s Commercial Seal Hunt
The Harp Seal
The Canadian commercial seal hunt targets the
harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) of between
three weeks to 14 months of age, the so-called
“beaters,” of the Western North Atlantic stock that
whelps on the Labrador Current (Caldow 1989:14;
Lavigne 2009:542, 543). The International Union
for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the
harp seal under “Least Concern,” with an estimated population of 5.9 million animals in 2005
and an increasing population trend; however,
climate change poses a long-term threat (Kovacs
2008). Most recent estimates indicate the harp seal
population to be at 9.6 million in 2010 (DFO 2011;
NOAA 2012:105).
The current commercial seal hunt is conducted when the winter ice has broken up and the
seals have reached the “Front,” the waters northeast of Newfoundland. Since the transition from
the “beater” to the “bedlamer” stage, when the
pup’s silvery fur is turning browner, occurs very
quickly, the seal hunt is of very short duration and
lasts only for 3–4 weeks in April.

Literature Review
Accounts of the commercial seal hunt both in
the past and present are limited and predominantly descriptive without considering sealing
communities.
The first written account was given by
George Allan England in his book Vikings of the
Ice in 1924. This book has been reprinted four
times under the title The Greatest Hunt in the
World (England 1924). England colorfully and
vividly describes his experiences during a sixweek seal hunt in the Front in 1922, conveying

74

Arctic Anthropology 52:1

Figure 2. Location of approximate sailing route of the Steff&Tahn and the location of Woodstock in Newfoundland.

the hardships, dangers, and crude reality of the
hunt to the reader.
Major W. Howe Greene’s (1933) The
Wooden Walls among the Ice Floes paints a

picture that presents by and large a “clean”
image of the seal hunt, the sealers, and life on
board. It can be considered a counterpart to England’s graphic account as the hunt, the sealers,

Morality, Practice, and Economy in a Commercial Sealing Community

and the landscapes are described in an embellished manner.
In 1973, Farley Mowat published a rather
prosaic account of the late 19th- and early 20th-­
century seal hunt. His book Wake of the Great
Sealers is accompanied by drawings and paintings
of the artist David Blackwood to create a vivid
picture of the hunt and hunting conditions (Mowat
and Blackwood 1973).
CBC journalist Jim Winter engaged in the
Newfoundland seal hunt in 1977, describing the
conditions of the hunt and on board. His work
made reference to ongoing protests by Greenpeace
on the ice, as well as his personal feelings toward
killing seals and spending time onboard the vessel.
His documentary Berthed Swiler was reproduced
on CD in 1999 (Winter 1999).
In 1980, La grande mouvée, l’histoire des
phoques et des hommes dans le golfe du Saint-­
Laurent was published by Pol Chantraine (1980)
and translated into English in the same year.
Trained as a journalist, Chaintraine provided a
personal depiction of the hunt in the Magdalen
Islands and a history of the hunt in the region. Yet,
it cannot be ascertained which year he participated
in the seal hunt.
It was not until 1983 that an ethnographic
depiction of the seal hunt was available, when Guy
Wright’s master’s thesis in anthropology (Wright
1983) was turned into the popularized book Sons
& Seals (Wright 1984). Wright describes his experiences in the 1979 seal hunt on the Hector and
provides an ethnography of the sealing crew.
Michael J. Dwyer’s Over the Side, Mickey was
published in 1998. Written from Dwyer’s perspective, the drastic conditions in which the seal hunt
took place in 1997 paint a very human picture of
the hunt, making the author conclude that “I’ll
never do it again” (Dwyer 1998:185).
The most recent in situ description of the
commercial seal hunt appeared in 2010, based on
the diary of Newfoundland artist George Noseworthy’s participation in the 1970 seal hunt. His
diary and the difficult situations he encountered
are reprinted and accompanied by his paintings,
giving a visual impression of the hunt (Noseworthy 2010).

Newfoundland’s History of
Commercial Sealing
Newfoundland’s archaic settlers and later on the
Beothuk made use of abundant marine resources
(Caldow 1989:21, 22; Kristensen and Curtis
2012:80, 81; Rankin 2008:12; Tuck 1998). With
the arrival of European settlers in the early 1500s,
abundant marine resources such as cod, seals,
and whales were heavily exploited by European
vessels. This provided the colony, as well as the

75

European continent, with valuable resources, leading to permanent settlement of Newfoundland in
the first half of the 17th century (Pope 2008:25, 33;
Ryan 1994:25).
As of 1723, seal oil was officially documented as a resource and the northern outports
of Newfoundland had incorporated the emerging
sealing industry into their local economies (Ryan
1994:50, 51). In 1793, a merchant sent the first two
vessels from St. John’s to hunt seals commercially,
followed by four more in 1796 (Coleman 1949:42;
Dunn 1977:1; Ryan 1994:55; Wright 1984:10).
With the introduction of larger steam vessels, the
importance of the sealing industry rose dramatically until the mid‑18th century, when one-third
of Newfoundland’s economy and about one-fourth
of the island’s exports were based on the seal hunt
(Busch 1985:50; Caldow 1989:30; Ryan 1994:98).
During the 18th century, Newfoundland enacted
its first law to protect seal stocks from overhunting. Moral considerations within these laws were,
by and large, referring to the wastefulness of the
seal hunts (Ryan 1994:113–117, 165, 182) linking
the seal as an important resource with the limits of
the stocks.
With the introduction of iron steamers in
the early 20th century, the seal hunt had already
passed its zenith. Due to overhunting, seal stocks
began to dwindle while innovations in fossil fuels
had reduced the importance of seal oil. During the
First World War many steamers were used in the
service of Britain and the seal-rich waters of Newfoundland triggered the interests of Norwegian
merchants, while Newfoundland’s sealing industry
experienced steady decline (Barry 2005:15; Caldow 1989:52; Coleman 1949:44).
After the Second World War, the introduction
of outboard engines allowed small communities
to engage in the hunt with small vessels. But with
the further decline of the industry and with Newfoundland joining Canada in 1949, fewer Newfoundland fishermen went out to hunt seals. Seals
were overhunted by primarily Norwegian vessels,
largely out of Canadian control. Responding to the
growing lack of control over its marine resources,
in 1977 Canada introduced its 200 nm Exclusive
Economic Zone. In 1983, the European Communities enacted a trade ban on products stemming
from seal pups. The average annual revenue for
individual sealers dropped dramatically, triggering unemployment benefits for sealers and for the
workers in the industry (Lynge 1992:31, 32; Malouf
1986:342; Myers 2005:1863).
In light of the declining industry and ongoing protests, the Canadian government initiated a
process to assess the socioeconomic relevance of
the seal hunt for the communities as well as the
commercial hunt’s impact on the seal stocks. The
findings of this effort were published in the 1986

76

Report of the Royal Commission on Seals and
Sealing (Malouf 1986), which inter alia recommended banning the hunting of seal pups due to
image reasons (Malouf 1986:202, 372).
The federal government responded to the
Commission’s recommendation in 1987 (Caldow
1989:189). Throughout the 1990s and the 2000s,
stringent animal-­welfare requirements have manifested in Canadian seal-­hunting legislation while
the sealing industry is undergoing significant
boom and bust cycles. The European Union enacted a total ban on trade in seal products in 2009,
which came into force in 2010 and Russia following suit in 2011 (Sellheim 2014).

Affordances, Moralities, and Values
in the Commercial Seal Hunt
The Setting: Woodstock, Newfoundland
The community of Woodstock is located on the
north shore of Newfoundland (Fig. 2). Located in
a cove of around 3.5 km length, the community is
surrounded by mountains approximately 150 m
in height, covered predominantly by black spruce.
The region is considered to have the warmest
mean summer temperature of the coastal areas
(12.5° C), while the mean winter temperature is
–3.5° C and the annual average 4° C. It is furthermore the driest area of the island with an average

Figure 3. Population pyramid for Woodstock in 1996.

Arctic Anthropology 52:1

annual precipitation of 900–1000 mm. As found
on the whole of Newfoundland, the areas around
Woodstock are rich in birds and mammals (Bell
2002a, 2002b).
Woodstock was first settled in the late 1800s
and called Southwest Paquet but was renamed to
Woodstock when it received its first post office
in 1911. The community is accessible from the
waters of the Front or from a road that enables a
direct connection between the community and
Newfoundland’s capital St. John’s, 630 km to the
south. Until 1961, when the first gravel road was
built, the community was merely accessible via
sea, dogsled, or foot (Letto 2009:1, 2). Communication in Woodstock is based on landline telephones,
fax, and email. Cell-phone coverage does not exist
in the area, and the paved road ends in the town
center.
Although the population of Woodstock has
been rather low—between 154 and 188 in the years
1914–1938—three churches were built: The United
Church, the Salvation Army in 1960, and the
United Pentecostal Church in 1968 (Letto 2009:2).
Services today are, however, rather sparsely
attended. Woodstock’s population was 311 in
1991 but dropped again to 190 in 2011. Due to the
emigration of primarily young people, the median
age has risen from 38.4 years in 1996 to 51.5 years
in 2011 (Statistics Canada 1996; Statistics Canada
2011) (figs. 3 and 4).

Morality, Practice, and Economy in a Commercial Sealing Community

77

Figure 4. Population pyramid for Woodstock in 2011.

Woodstock experiences emigration due to
low employment opportunities resulting in an
aging population (Letto 2009:1, 2). This led to the
closure of the primary school in 2008 that served
both the community of Woodstock and nearby
Pacquet, whose school closed down in 1991 (Letto
2009:2). Therefore as of September 2008, Woodstock’s school children are forced to attend Baie
Verte Primary School, about 25 km from Woodstock (Nova Central School District 2008:4). Higher
education cannot be found in northern Newfoundland, which requires young adults to relocate to
larger communities, such as St. John’s or Corner
Brook, or move out of the province entirely.
In Newfoundland, the emigration trend has
been documented since at least 1991, when the Canadian government initiated population censuses
on a five-year basis throughout the country. Northern Newfoundland in particular has experienced
a population loss from around 49,000 in 1996 to
35,000 in 2011–2012. Except for Newfoundland’s
capital area, which has a rising population, all
census divisions have lost inhabitants (Statistics
Canada 2013).
Fishing, mining, and forestry constitute
the main activities of land use in northeastern
Newfoundland (Bell 2002a). While exact current
numbers of employment in Woodstock cannot be
ascertained, based on the latest available employment data from 2006, Woodstock’s then 199 inhabitants had a workforce of 85, of which 25 worked

as fishermen and sealers. Ten were working in the
fish processing industry, while retail and mechanics constitute two more pillars of economics
in Woodstock (Statistics Canada 2006). The only
retail market in Woodstock currently provides
employment for three inhabitants. Others work
elsewhere in the region but reside in Woodstock
(Letto 2009:2). In 2001, 120 people were employed
in a more diverse employment sector, including
schoolteachers and construction workers (Statistics Canada 2001), while the decline in population inevitably has contributed to a decline in the
diversity of the labor market in the community.

The Normative Role of the Sea
In general, everyday morals and sets of values in
Woodstock are linked to the sea, as the sealers are
also fishermen and spend around half of the year
on the water. Water therefore has agentive powers
for the community and “does something in society” (Hastrup and Rubow [ed.] 2014:23, original
emphasis): Apart from economic considerations
that drive Woodstock’s fishing economy, an important element is the sea as a shaper of moral and
societal values, thus becoming an identity-­giving
means. Woodstock, as well as virtually all other
communities in Newfoundland, is based around
the sea. The importance of the sea for the self-­
understanding of Newfoundlanders is omnipresent
in different forms, and the importance of marine

78

resources for the development and maintenance
of the former colony is reflected in arts, songs,
and poetry. However, it is not the resource per
se, which is the focus of attention, but rather the
captains, crews, ships, and events. This is also the
case for sealing. Ryan and Small (1978) collected
numerous traditional and yet-­unrecorded songs
and poems related to the seal hunt, which reflect
hardships and dangers, as well as perceived hero­
ism of sealing captains and their crews in 1978,
reflecting the significant social value of sealing
and mastering the sea for Newfoundlanders.
Chukotkan whale hunts have shown similar traits
for native hunters with complex social and ideological values connected to them (Krupnik 1987).
With a transition from regionally recognized hunts
to hunts under international scrutiny, these values
have begun to erode, changing the socioeconomic
structure of hunting communities (Krupnik 1987).
Similarly, Newfoundland’s long-­standing history
of seafaring and seal hunting with associated social values is undergoing significant changes that
alter the social fabric of coastal communities.
The sea appears to give meaning to the lives
of Woodstockers, and the community shares a
perception of the sea as a means without which
life in this remote part of the island would not be
possible. It is thus that marine living resources
have always been considered elementary in
establishing and maintaining human settlements
in Newfoundland (see for example Bock 1991).
Moreover, it is the harvest of marine resources that
has created close ties within and between families
in Woodstock and in other nearby communities,
which in turn have generated the sociality in the
communities. It is thus the practical dimension
of aiming to maintain life on the island, by which
sealers perceive the affordances of the sea with
which they identify themselves (on sociality, see
Ingold 2011:176).
“We have the sea in our blood,” as stated
during the sealing trip, denotes Woodstockers
as seamen that consider the sea as their home,
including knowledge about its conditions and
the location of the human being in it. With all its
facets of stormy weather or calm sunny waters,
the crew on many occasions expressed how they
would never want to do anything else than making a living from harvesting marine resources. It
is therefore not without explanation that the seal
hunt in Newfoundland is commonly referred to as
the seal “fishery” or “harvest,” although its mammalian nature is known. Busch (1985) notes that
the denotation of the seal hunt as a fishery can be
traced back to the Catholic influence in Newfoundland, which forbade the consumption of meat on
Fridays. Considering the seal as fish enabled sealmeat consumption (Busch 1985:41). The same occurred also, for example, with the South American

Arctic Anthropology 52:1

capybara that the Catholic Church denoted as fish
in order to enable increased human consumption.
Currently, the consideration of seals as a fish
should not be regarded a conscious choice but
should rather be related to the sea’s affordances.
In this sense, it is “Gibson’s ecological psychology
and Bourdieu’s theory of practice [that] re‑embed
perception and cognition within the practical
contexts of people’s ongoing engagement with
their environments in the ordinary course of life”
(Ingold 2011:167). The moral approach towards
seal hunting is therefore grounded in the encounter of the sea in everyday life. It does not circle
around whether or not to use the seal but rather
to be able to provide for the community through
the affordances of the sea in general (Gudeman
2001:43–45).

The Affordances of the Seal
Singling out the seal from the overall affordances
of the sea does not do justice to the moral landscape of Woodstockers. In this paper it occurs
notwithstanding as a response to special treatment
of seals in global discourse and law.
Woodstockers perceive seals to be contributors to the sustainability of the community by affording monetary income and food. Moreover they
are part of the long-­standing tradition of seal hunting in Newfoundland and are therefore integral to
the utilization of marine resources (Field notes,
April and November 2013). Seals hold a certain
value—both economically and emotionally—that
is embedded in the overall value of the sea based
on which moral and economic integrity of Woodstock is shaped. This integrity in turn makes the
capability of exploiting a resource (i.e., the access
to and taking of a resource) more efficient.
Chemero (2003:190) recognizes that affordances in the animal kingdom are linked to evolution, and that an animal can only recognize an
affordance due to its evolutionary place within an
ecosystem. In sociocultural terms, it can be argued
that the recognition of an affordance is inevitably linked to the ability to respond to it. In other
words, if the potential of the seal to provide for a
community is recognized, skills and social practices must be developed to be able to exploit it,
reflecting into technical, sociocultural, and moral
skills, as well as knowledge of the sea. Therefore, I
argue that the recognition of affordances results in
morally charged actions that are aimed to respond
to the affordance. Following Lambek (2010:3),
these are “prospective (evaluating what to do, how
to live), immediate (doing the right thing, drawing
on what is at hand, jumping in), and retrospective (acknowledging what has been done, what it
was and is).” Judgment on these actions does not
necessarily occur consciously, but evaluation and

Morality, Practice, and Economy in a Commercial Sealing Community

reflection are inherent part everyday life (Keane
2014:4). Thus, ethical affordances that are acted
upon in different situations are also recognizable
on a sealing vessel (Keane 2014:7).
The main criteria for acting according to
ethical affordance in Woodstock are rooted in one
overarching perception of human–seal interaction: using the seal for the good of the community,
rendering the hunt on seals an ethical activity as
such. All actions on board thus must be in accordance with this. Lambek (2010:45) writes: “When
the state of affairs is in conformity with the performative act, then the state can be said to be ‘true’ (or
correct, right, or good).” Argumentum e contrario,
if the performative act compromises the state of
affairs, actions and ethical considerations must be
undertaken to bring it back into conformity, as will
be shown later.
The direct supply for the community of
Woodstock is generated through monetary income for the sealers upon sale of the pelts and the
flippers as well as through providing the community with seal parts upon return. In 2013, approximately 150 seal carcasses, 300 flippers, and
60 seal hearts were given to community members
for consumption. In Woodstock, each resident
receiving the seal products had ordered them prior
to the trip and received them without monetary exchange directly upon arrival in port. Other goods
and services are exchanged as payment for the seal
products or these served as payments for previous
goods or services. In one case, seal hearts were
given to one community member without exchanging other goods or services because his brined seal
hearts were considered a delicacy.
Sharing in communities dependent on
hunting and in arctic communities has been documented widely (Dahl 2000; Dorais 1997; Freeman [ed.] 2000; Henriksen 2010; Vitebsky 2005).
Kalland and Sejersen (2005:80) write that “communities all over the North Atlantic repeatedly
underline the social aspect of sharing. Sharing is
a key issue in northern communities, a dominant
moral standard that integrates households, families, and communities.”
Several examples from the Steff&Tahn
demonstrate how conscious and unconscious judgment to fulfill the overarching moral determinant
to provide for the community shapes life on board
and thus the moral landscape within a seal hunting environment.

Immediate, Conscious
Evaluation of What to Do
Skill and conscious judgment are crucial in maximizing the efficiency of the seal hunt. Prior to
sailing different sealing crews meet in the local
Connie’s Store to buy supplies for the hunt and

79

to equip the boat. Since it is the only store in
the community, it is not only a logistical center
but also a community center where news about
weather conditions and the overall state of the
fisheries is exchanged. Although sailing routes are
not set, prevailing wind patterns and the associated ice conditions are discussed, and estimates on
the routes and the likelihood of reaching the seals
are exchanged, constituting a conscious deliberation on a successful hunt. This exchange serves
two purposes. Firstly, while seals are overabundant all in all in the Front, they may nevertheless
be scattered in different patches. In order to avoid
hunting in the same patch by two or more boats as
much as possible, the exchange of information provides all vessels with a good opportunity to reach
different seal patches. Secondly, the exchange of
possible sailing routes serves security and safety:
If a vessel fails to communicate, potential search
areas can be narrowed down. Although each vessel
is equipped with radar, GPS, and radio, sharing
potential routing information with community
members and other sealers is an additional feature
for ensuring the safety of the hunters. The planning of the impending hunt is therefore considered
under the premise of benefiting the whole community with consideration of difficult economic
circumstances and the dangers of the hunt itself.
This resembles nomads in Mauretania where
water constitutes the main obstacle to successful
pastoralism. Here, water occurrence—both in rain
and oases—influences the decisions regarding
the routes to be taken (Vium 2014:212). Although
geographically apart and diametrically different
in environment, a specific shortage (economic
stability in Newfoundland and water in Mauretania) and danger (ice conditions and drought)
therefore influence the degree to which collective
benefit is considered. In this sense, Connie’s Store
is equivalent to a Mauretanian well where information exchange is exercised and social life is
centered (Hastrup and Rubow [ed.] 2014:25) and
to the role of a local store in Inuit communities see
also Dahl 2000). Also Gudeman (2001:117) refers
to information sharing as a benefiter for the whole
community: A new innovation in firing clay bricks
in a Guatemalan community is not kept private but
is passively shared by not preventing copying in
order to quicken the pace of the community’s local
innovations benefitting all. The conscious and
nonselective sharing of information is therefore
an important element of the moral dimension of
economic activity, reflecting the need of fulfilling
basic needs of the community (Trawick 2001).
Conscious decision-­making and information
exchange is also crucial on the boat. The seal hunt
at the Front is entirely conducted from the boat.
With .222 or .223 caliber rifles, the seals are shot
from the upper deck by one marksman. On this

80

deck, a second wheelhouse is located that eases
navigation in ice-­obstructed waters and enables
smooth communication between the marksman and
the skipper. The boat then steers towards the ice
patch where the seal was shot and the seal is gaffed
aboard by the crew on the open deck. The gaffs
used to haul the seal on board are 1.5–6 m long,
made of hard wood, and have a metal hook at the
end that is driven through the head of the seal. This
serves two purposes: It is another means to ensure
the death of the animal, and it preserves the condition of the pelt, which loses value with every hole
or scratch. The loss of value, in combination with
the danger that a wounded seal causes for the crew
on the open deck, serves as incentive for the marksman to apply utter precision in his shots to ensure
instant death. Precise shooting therefore is a crucial
element in making the seal hunt efficient and furthermore corresponds to the overarching attitude
on board not to let a seal suffer unnecessarily.
Immediately upon the seal being gaffed on
board, the hakapik, a wooden club with a hammer
head, is used to crush its skull through several
repeated strikes, regardless of the gunshot to the
head. The skull is then checked whether both
sides are entirely crushed. To ensure certain death,
the seal is cut with a single movement from the
chin through its belly button to its anus. Both
axillary arteries are cut. This first cut constitutes
a major element that demarcates the value of the
skin. If carried out sloppily (e.g., with several cuts
or missing the belly button), a skin loses value
because during further processing, large sections of an irregularly shaped skin are discarded
during trimming. After the arteries are cut, the
seal is turned over for bleeding for around 30 to
40 seconds before it is pelted. The pelting process
includes the removal of the blubber and the skin
from the carcass (Fig. 5). Due to the lack of a market for seal products other than skins, fat, and flippers, the carcass is thrown overboard unless prior
to the hunt agreements with Woodstock residents
were made to keep some for personal consumption. Knowledge about and the application of the
so-called three-step process—stunning, checking,
bleeding—was made compulsory for all sealers in
2009 (DFO 2009).
A second means to hunt seals is from a speedboat. In favorable ice conditions, the speedboat is
used to access patches of seals in order to bring
in a larger number and to shorten the days at sea.
With a maximum capacity of around 45 seals, the
speedboat is operated by two sealers. The threestep process is applied on the speedboat, whereas
pelting still occurs on the main vessel. The speedboat is used throughout the day and disembarks its
catch before heading out again.
The abundance of seals often does not allow
for immediate pelting after application of the

Arctic Anthropology 52:1

Figure 5. Pelting on the deck of the Steff&Tahn. Photograph by Nikolas Sellheim.

three-step process so that it can be ensured that every seal is killed following the regulations. Therefore, depending on the daily catch, on several
days up to 200 seals were lying on deck and when
combined with the rocking of the boat and a slippery floor, movement was difficult. Pelting seals
constituted a major part of the work on board and
was done when weather and light conditions did
not allow for precision shooting. Then the whole
crew engages in pelting. Yet, regardless of fatigue,
bad weather, or hunger, precision of the cuts is of
highest priority. This is firstly to ensure that the
sealer does not inflict injury to himself or others,
as the pelting knives are kept extremely sharp.
Secondly, every cut that is misplaced—­cutting
through the skin or cutting through organs of the
seal—devalues the pelt.
Conscious decision-­making is ultimately a
significant part of affordance response, reflecting
into unconscious and moral actions. Given the
legal framework and the long-­standing economic
dimension of the seal hunt, it appears unlikely that
hunting and skinning techniques would change
with an increase of a subsistence seal hunt, as the
safety of the sealers would not entail a conscious
change of practices. A change in the legal framework, however, would inevitably lead to sealers
having to consciously apply different techniques
in order to be able to provide for the community.

Prospective, Unconscious Evaluation,
and Response
The seal hunt constitutes an activity that puts the
individual under extreme physical and psychological pressure. As I was working as a deck hand,
and therefore gaffed and pelted seals, these strains

Morality, Practice, and Economy in a Commercial Sealing Community

became very tangible shortly after the beginning
of the hunt and mental, as well as physical, fatigue
became a challenge to be faced. In combination
with the dangers posed by the sea itself, the gory
environment on deck, and the distance to family,
a sealer easily experiences mental difficulties.
However, every nonefficient crew member puts a
successful seal hunt into jeopardy and therefore it
is necessary to counter these symptoms. This leads
to a high degree of crew solidarity, which reflects
the interrelationship between the affordances of
the seal and the morality of a sealing crew. This
does not occur consciously but constitutes an integral element of the dynamics on the boat.
For instance, sharing is a significant moral
element onboard a sealing vessel. Although the
skipper provides all supplies, prior to sailing each
crew member is asked to bring his own personal
foodstuffs, cigarettes, or anything that he wishes
to consume during the trip except alcohol. Thus a
large amount of soda, sweets, chips, and cigarettes
can be found on board, each belonging to a particular crew member. Throughout the hunt, personal
property is still considered as such but inevitably
becomes accessible to all crew leading to a consensual agreement that all goods on board can be used
by the whole crew.
Cigarettes, for example, were an important
commodity on the Steff&Tahn and were consumed
frequently. Although I am a nonsmoker, even I was
overwhelmed by the urge to smoke but did not
take cigarettes. The skipper solved this by providing me with several of his own packs, stating:
“Now you have cigarettes. So, there’s nothing to
worry. And if you need more, you know where
they are.” As such, personal property and individual usage of this is confined to underwear and
socks as well as toiletry items. Clothing, shoes,
foodstuffs, and all other commodities are shared
among all crew members.
In order to further bolster crew spirit, jokes
played an important role in overcoming potential
differences or difficult situations. Jokes serve as
motivators, while (retaliatory) pranks that have
often been ongoing for many years are played on
each other for the overall enjoyment of the crew.
Motivation through joking can be best exemplified when looking at a successful hunting
day when more than 200 seals needed pelting and
storage. The day had been long and tiring, and
weather conditions were hostile. Yet, the pelting
and storing had to be accomplished before going to
sleep. All crew had reached their physical limits
and the only way to continue despite pain and
hardship was to joke and laugh “and not think
about your pain.”
Seen from the outside, loudly laughing men
among hundreds of dead seals could be considered
macabre and barbaric. However, this perception

81

may be hasty. For the crew, seals are charismatic
animals and some indicated that killing seals is
not nice but necessary. In this situation laughing
enables the detachment from a certain difficult
surrounding in which strain is put on both the
psyche and the body. Also for the crew engaging
in pelting of several hundred seals, standing in
pools of blood and experiencing utmost exhaustion is challenging. In conversations with the crew,
none indicated that they liked the situation and
that “you sometimes should not think about what
you’re doing.” This corresponds to some degree
to Stammler’s (2005:88) observations of killing
reindeer by female Yamal Nenets who, in some
contexts, strangle reindeer to death, although this
breaches the “law of the tundra.” Joking, especially
when one would least expect it, serves as a motivational tool to overcome hardship. Jokes are therefore not made over a given situation but are caused
by a given situation. The absence of hostility on
the boat serves as an indicator for joking being a
successful and necessary strategy.

Retrospective and Prospective
Conflict Resolution
The moral interaction among the crew becomes
prominent in the resolution of conflicts and the
response to breaches of the performative act of fulfilling the premise of efficiently providing for the
community. A vessel-­specific system of unspoken
rules prevailed, which all aimed at maintaining
and resulted in crew solidarity, cooperation, and
ultimately efficiency. The more concentrated and
concerted the crew acts, the higher the likelihood
of an early return to port. This notion of cooperation translates into calm conflict resolution.
One situation of a retrospective as well as
proactive character exemplifies this. It was retro­
active because it deals with occurrences in the past
and proactive because it aims at avoiding future
mistakes and maintaining crew integrity. Due to
sloppy pelting, several pelts lost value. As I was
engaged in the pelting and was not only considered a “greenhorn” but also very inexperienced
in working on a constantly moving boat, I was
suspected to have made this mistake as both other
deckhands were first fishermen and one an older,
experienced sealer. Upon discovery of the sloppy
work I was calmly observed by one of the foremen
while pelting a seal, and he repeatedly hinted to
the importance of a sharp knife and a long, single
cut. It became quickly clear that given the timely
circumstances under which the pelting had been
conducted I could not have made the mistake.
Therefore, the skipper investigated the incident
more closely and put disciplinary measures on
both other deckhands without my knowledge.
Only later was I informed that they had been

82

disciplined. The nature of the discipline was not
communicated to me, but it was implied that they
were related to the work that had to be carried out
on the boat.
The situation shows that it is not the finding
of the individual culprit but to highlight responsibility for the overall benefit of the crew. This
means that since I was an observer without prior
knowledge, experience, or economic benefit from
the hunt, I did not hold responsibility for the crew
while the crew held responsibility for me. This
was because through my unpaid participatory
work I contributed to the quicker conduct of the
hunt and was therefore a contributing member
of the crew. Thus, I was spared from disciplinary
measures. The other deckhands, as economic
benefiters, were responsible for the proper conduct of pelting for the benefit of the whole crew
and were therefore both disciplined. This process
was carried out without yelling or unfriendliness.
Instead, the deckhands accepted their disciplining
without argument while the skipper noted: “Yes,
a mistake was made. And it simply should not
happen again. There is no point in yelling.” Brief,
heated disagreements erupted only concerning the
interpretation of the environmental conditions.
These were very short-lived due to the authority of
the skipper, reflecting the overall respect towards
the hierarchy on board. Open hostility among the
crew over a longer period of time was absent.

Interacting Segments of Morality
The applied moral standards on the Steff&Tahn
are closely linked to the activities that are carried
out to respond to the affordances of the seal and
to be able to provide for the community. While the
affordance–responsive actions feed into the moral
behavior of the crew, also external rules influence
seal-­hunting practices.
According to Canadian legislation, each
participant in the seal hunt is required to obtain
a license. Licenses were first introduced into the
seal hunt in 1964 with the adoption of the Seal
Protection Regulations under the Fisheries Act
(Barry 2005:19), which have now become the Marine Mammal Regulations. Three different types of
licenses exist: a) personal use; b) commercial use;
c) license for nuisance seals, meaning for marine-­
management purposes. Since 1995, the personal-­
use license is valid for residents of coastal
communities in Newfoundland, Labrador, and
Quebec under which residents are entitled to hunt
six seals per year. Indigenous communities north
of 53° latitude are entitled to hunt seals without
a permit irrespective of the number of seals that
are hunted. Since 2004, in order to further professionalize the hunt, a freeze on the issuance of
commercial sealing licenses was implemented. In

Arctic Anthropology 52:1

order to fulfill the need for crew, temporary assistant sealing licenses, which I also held, are issued
under which the bearer is not allowed to apply the
first blow to a seal (DFO 2011). The regulations
pertaining to the seal hunt are by and large under
federal control, and implementation is strictly
monitored.
While sealers in general do not oppose
monitoring of the seal hunt in order to improve its
image, the understanding of the seal as an animal
that is not to be killed, as put forward by antisealing groups, as well as the reflection of moral
standards pertaining to the killing and skinning of
animals that have originated elsewhere, often lead
to a disapproval of the given rules. While they are
nevertheless obliged in order to be able to continue sealing, they are perceived as illogical. For
instance, the compulsory crushing of both sides of
the cranium with a hakapik, responding to moral
concerns over the state of the seal’s consciousness
during skinning, occurs on board irrespective of
the state of the seal’s head. On several occasions
the skull was crushed with the hakapik although it
had already been crushed by a bullet—yet only on
one side. This seal was undoubtedly irretrievably
unconscious. As one sealer noted, “it doesn’t make
sense, but it’s the rules.” The “rules” are therefore
perceived to be an outside force that shape behavior on board and do not correspond to real-life situations. While the incentive for the introduction of
the three-step process into the Canadian legislation
inter alia due to protests from the European Union
aimed at ensuring an “ethical” hunt on seals by
guaranteeing the death of the animal before pelting, many interviewed participants revealed that
this morality does not correspond to their own as
it is hypocritical. “Why do the Europeans care so
much about how we kill our seals when they can’t
even take care of their pigs in the abbatoirs”? It
seems illogical to the sealers to influence hunting
methods in a way that makes them more physically daring and more time consuming instead of
creating markets for all parts of the animal to make
it less wasteful.
Instead, before obtaining the license, every assistant sealer has to attend a compulsory
workshop on the “Humane Harvesting of Seals.”
In 2013, 18 of these workshops were held across
Newfoundland (CSA 2013). Due to my arrival in
Newfoundland only a few days before the start
of the hunt, I was not able to attend a workshop.
However, the CSA provided me with learning material on how to strike, cut, bleed, and pelt a seal
prior to my arrival. After some time to study these,
a phone exam was undertaken in which a workshop presenter tested my knowledge on the humane harvesting of seals, enabling me to obtain a
temporary assistant sealing license. Failure to comply with licensing requirements may result in the

Morality, Practice, and Economy in a Commercial Sealing Community

permanent loss of sealing licenses by the skipper
and the respective sealer in question. Ultimately,
sealers feel that they have to adapt to outside standards that disregard the century-­old knowledge on
how to hunt, kill, and skin seals. This corresponds,
for example, to practices in Norwegian reindeer
herding in which the acceptance of traditional
practice and application of administrative management systems collide (Reinert 2008:70). Moreover,
apart from the sealing licenses, the vessel needs to
be prepared to accept an observer by the Canadian
government—“sea watch”—on short notice prior
to sailing in order to provide onsite monitoring of
the hunt. It is therefore the responsibility of the
skipper to have a spare bunk and provisions available in case a sea watch accompanies the hunt.
Failure to do so may result in one crewmember
having to stay on land.
The special role seals play in global discourse and the associated morality feed into the
behavior of the sealing crew through the stringent
application of the three-step process. But even
without the rules set forth in the Marine Mammal
Regulations, the killing methods in 2013 would
not have been significantly different. The one
fundamental difference, however, would be that
these methods would be related to the safety of the
crew, efficiency, and market considerations. This
contradicts the moral approach of the laws that
place the seal in the center of consideration. With
the result in essence being the same, it shows how
different moralities on a given context coalesce.
Thus, segmented moral relativism is justified
when looking at the seal hunt, indeed making the
sealing vessel a moral world of its own. In other
words, the main focus of the killing practices on
board the Steff&Tahn is based on its operative and
therefore moral environment. A placing of this
focus into moral contexts outside of the seal hunt
seems therefore difficult.

Dichotomous Values of the
Seal Hunt in Woodstock?
Apart from the normative role, the ability to provide and thus the seal hunt, play for generating
moral features on a sealing vessel, it also plays
a significant role for the community and social
cohesion within it. Ultimately, there are certain
values attached to the seal hunt that need examining. Borrowing from Graeber (1980), “value” here
is referred to in a dual way:
1. “value” in the sociological sense: conceptions
of what is ultimately good, proper, or desirable in
human life; 2. “value” in the economic sense: the
degree to which objects are desired, particularly,
as measured by how much others are willing to
give up to get them (Graeber 2001:1, 2).

83

In Woodstock, the social and economic values
are so closely interlinked that one cannot coexist
without the other. Given the long-­standing history
of the commercial seal hunt (i.e., the hunt on seals
for economic benefit which outweighed the dangers at sea), the value system has long been tied to
an economic activity.

The Social Value
The dangers at sea and the loss of life over the
years have generated a strong sense of belonging
and identity in Newfoundland. The latest example
for the importance of the seal hunt as a means to
signify Newfoundland’s identity is the erection
of the Home from the Sea sealer’s memorial in
April 2014 in Elliston, commemorating the 100th
anniversary of the great S. S. Newfoundland and
S. S. Southern Cross disasters of 1914 when more
than 270 sealers lost their lives.
Also on a community scale, the value of the
seal hunt as part of the seafaring activities of the
fishermen of Woodstock is significant. Already
throughout the preparatory phase of the seal hunt,
the logistical center of the community, Connie’s
Store, becomes the social hub of the community
when sealers purchase supplies for their vessels,
and the whole community is in uproar. Prior to
sailing, the women of Woodstock, approached
at Connie’s Store during the preparation phase,
expressed that they worry for the safety of their
husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons. Some
women expressed that they would never go out to
sea because they would be afraid all the time, yet
none expressed that they wished the men would
seek another type of employment. To the contrary,
happiness upon return and pride for the intrepidness of the men having mastered the dangers of the
sea while providing for the community is reflected
in the female discourse about the seal hunt and
fisheries.
Notwithstanding, outmigration constitutes
a problem in Newfoundland’s north. To counter
uprootedness and community dissolution, within
Woodstock, frequent, spontaneous visits to other
families and frequent visits from those having
moved away occur. While the men are at sea, it is
especially the women that maintain the social and
communal practices in Woodstock. The dangers
that the sea generates for the men can therefore
only be countered through strong family and
community ties. Assurance of safety of the men is
achieved through daily phone calls with the boat,
where a cell-phone signal booster and a satellite
phone were installed. However, as women indicated, fear of loss stands vis-à-vis the economic
and financial need to go out to sea.
The social value of the seal hunt as part of
the fisheries in Woodstock therefore influences the

84

social capital in both a negative and positive way.
Bourdieu (1986:248) defines “social capital” as
“the aggregate of the actual or potential resources
which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition.” On
the one hand, the will to pursue other means of
livelihoods makes especially young Woodstockers
leave the community, rendering fisheries and sealing an adversarial influence on the social capital
of Woodstock. On the other hand, the closeness
developed by the women and the crew at sea translates into the community in the off-­season. For
instance, the skipper and the two foremen share a
close friendship, go hunting together while their
kids are friends, schoolmates, and sport comrades. In the case of the skipper’s family, both the
­father and the skipper himself run the small-scale
company under which the Steff&Tahn is operated.
They also live directly next to one another, share
their meals, and spend time with each other. Both
the professional and geographical closeness to the
sea provides the linkage and sociocultural glue
between the individuals engaged in its utilization,
positively affecting the social capital through seal
hunting and fishing. A merging of the community
and market sphere therefore occurs in Woodstock with households being direct actors in both
spheres (see also Gudeman 2001:11).
Given the ongoing trend of outmigration from
northern Newfoundland, it can be argued that
the negative social value of the limited economic
possibilities in Woodstock outweighs the positive value sealing and fisheries have on the social
cohesion within the community. At the same time,
economic hardships aggravate the problem of community dissolution and a dwindling social capital.

Economic Value(s)
Economically, the whole community of Woodstock
benefits from the seal hunt. While direct income is
created through the sale of pelts and flippers from
which the families of the crews benefit, secondary
income is generated through the equipping of the
vessels, which is mainly done through supplies
purchased in the community store. Similar to Iñupiat whaling practices in which whaling captains
are responsible for the provision of equipment
during the whaling trips (Jensen 2012:147), supplies are provided by the company under which
the Steff&Tahn is operated.
In 2013, supply costs amounted to approximately $15,000 CAD, enabling the vessel to sail
for about three weeks without shore leave. Around
$4,000 CAD were spent in Connie’s Store while
bullets were purchased in the neighboring community, amounting to around $3,000 CAD and
fuel for $8,000 CAD was purchased in another

Arctic Anthropology 52:1

community. With Woodstock being only one community in northern Newfoundland where fishing
and sealing constitute the mainstays of the local
economies, the whole region is positively affected
by the preparatory spending of the hunts. While no
generalized picture can be drawn for the whole region due to the lack of data, Connie’s Store can be
considered a spin-off business of the affordances
of the sea. Changing economic conditions for seal
products on the markets therefore affect secondary
businesses due to a reduction of spending.
Enabling the boat and the crew to participate
in the seal hunt is dependent on several factors,
and the economic situation is carefully assessed as
to whether it is economically feasible to engage in
the hunt. In 2009, Woodstock’s fishermen decided
against the hunt as the looming adoption of the
seal-­products ban in the European Union had
contributed to a massive decline in the value of
seal pelts (Sellheim 2014), rendering the economic
and physical efforts fruitless. Therefore, that year
saw only occasional speedboat-­based “landsman
hunts” for subsistence purposes. Since all of the
approximate 20 sealers in Woodstock are first and
foremost fishermen, they are dependent on the
developments in the fisheries sector and the feasibility of fishing for other species. This provides the
opportunity to diversify and shift focus on other
species should one fail. Therefore, the skipper and
the crew evaluate carefully whether it is economically feasible to equip the boat for the seal hunt or
whether it is more feasible to wait for the opening
of other fisheries. This generalized niche approach
increases the resilience of a community and has in
numerous cases been documented as a successful
management scheme (see for example Colding et
al. 2003; Forbes 2013; Kalland 2000).
In 2013, the decision to prepare the boat for
the seal hunt was motivated through the developments in the crab fisheries, as the crab season
opened on April 8 and the sealing season opened
on April 9. Since that year crab processors allocated the price per pound at $1.83 CAD, which
was considered very low by the fishermen, the
crab fishery was struck against (FFAW 2013). Ultimately, the seal hunt gained more importance and
although the economic outcome was not certain,
it was considered more viable than not earning
money at all. It is the degree of exchange on the
domestic and international markets—both for
fisheries and seal products—that steer the fishermen’s ambitions to conduct sealing or fishing.
Consequently, attempts are being made by the
skipper prior to preparing the vessel for the hunt
to determine which products are in demand. Based
on these factors, the appraisal of the number of
seals being hunted is made. This corresponds to
other (semi)commercial hunts (e.g., conducted in
Greenland) where, albeit on a local scale, different

Morality, Practice, and Economy in a Commercial Sealing Community

marine-­mammal products are offered on the local
markets at different times, preventing an oversaturation of the local markets (Kalland and Sejersen
2005:74).
The economic value of the seal hunt can
therefore not be underestimated, while it is highly
dependent on the world’s markets. In combination
with the short duration of the seal hunt and the
community’s dependence on other fisheries, the
hunt’s economic contribution and overall economic value varies greatly from year to year. It is
estimated that the seal hunt constitutes between
5–35% of the annual income of coastal communities (COWI 2008:24). Crew members on the
­Steff&Tahn stated that in good sealing and bad
fishery years even 50% of the annual income can
derive from sealing.

The Common or Shared Values
In Woodstock the social and economic spheres
cannot be separated, contrary to the clear distinction that Stammler (2005:173) draws for Nenet
reindeer herders. While the market sphere dictates
the degree to which economic income is yielded
from the seal hunt and from fisheries, “‘the economy’ is . . . not only a frame of reference for understanding the world and acting on it, it is also a set
of social practices and cognitive tools that constitute a ‘social world’ ” (de L’Estoile 2014:S65).
One of these social practices is bartering when the
vessel returns to port, which benefits the whole
community through the exchange of services
for seal meat. This bartering system resembles
­Sahlins’ system of generalized reciprocity (Sahlins 1972:193, 194) and contradicts Humphrey’s
assessment of post-­Soviet bartering where it “involves perceiving other people’s lack of resources,
ignorance or inefficiency in order to make a profit,
and it evokes constant fears of default or cheating
or theft” (Humphrey 2000:79). In many instances,
bartering was replaced by the free provision of seal
meat to the community.
Moreover, a subsistence element can be found
in the commercial seal hunt in Woodstock, although a traditional division between immediate-­
return (subsistence) and delayed-­return (market)
economies (Barnard 2002:7; Ingold 2011:66)
cannot be made. Although the hunt itself is driven
by a delayed-­return economy, the sealers on board
the Steff&Tahn considered their hunt a subsistence
seal hunt as it directly generates food as well as
monetary income later on. This was particularly
true in 2009 the landsman hunt generated direct
supplies for the community, while the pelts—as a
byproduct—were sold to the market.
Therefore, it is the economic circumstances
on the market for seal products that drive the
degree of subsistence activities in Woodstock:

85

with a declining market for commercial seal
products, the landsman hunts gain importance
and the consumption of seal products stemming
from hunts conducted primarily for community
consumption increases with fewer products being
sold commercially. In other words, good markets
increase the impersonal exchange value for seal
products, while declining markets increase their
personal use value. Consequently, a clear-cut line
between commercial and subsistence features of
the seal hunt for Woodstock cannot be drawn. The
economic characteristics pertaining to the seal
hunt are mixed and stand in a dialectical relationship to each other. But while there are commercial
considerations that drive the hunt, the degree of
subsistence activities relating to and depending
on the changing commercial markets generates a
type of economy that I term “relay economy”: a
decrease in commercialization of a given resource
leads to the increase of subsistence use of the same
resource by the resource users. Thus, the incentive
to use a resource shifts with varying market conditions, but it is nevertheless used. The capability
of self-­sufficiency in light of changing economic
conditions was underlined by a Woodstocker who
stated that “as long as we in Woodstock know how
to hunt and fish, we won’t have any problems.” In
other words, even in light of the fluctuating markets for seal products, the affordance of the seal
does not change. Also Gudeman (2001) notes, in
the context of securing the base of social cohesion,
drawing from an example of economic downturn
and a household’s ability to purchase frozen beans,
that “the shift form frozen to fresh to home beans,
participation in market exchange declines as time
devoted to the communal production of goods
increases” (Gudeman 2001:44). Further research
is needed to assess the self-­sufficiency vis-à-vis
profit-making aspect of this principle.
It is thus that the market and community
spheres of exchange in Woodstock experience a
one-­dimensional interaction in unison with the
principle of “relay economy”: With a dwindling
market sphere of exchange, the community sphere
of exchange undergoes changes. This occurs in
a twofold manner. First, the monetary exchange
decreases when skippers no longer equip their vessels to go out sealing, impacting small businesses
such as Connie’s Store. This, in turn, impacts the
social interaction within the community and may
accelerate ongoing processes of uprooting. Second,
subsistence hunting, as well as possibly bartering
practices, increases. While the latter cannot be
proved due to data deficiency, the former is best
exemplified by the increase in landsman hunts
in 2009 when the markets for seal products were
virtually nonexistent.
Actions and practices as impacted by a
changing market spheres also influence the

86

Arctic Anthropology 52:1

transmission of knowledge about the sea, its resources, and affordances. Competences in sealing
and associated knowledge(s) that often have been
acquired through social practices consequently
decline. The ability of “reading the ice,” which especially the skipper and the two foremen showed,
inevitably is affected when fewer and fewer trips
to the ice are undertaken (see Krupnik et al. 2010).
While in ongoing sealing and fishing trips “nature
is a kind of book that can be read,” and it will
therefore “always provide new, unread pages”
(Kalland and Sejersen 2005:139), this characteristic is only provided for when the sea is interacted
with and its affordances are of a utilitarian nature.
Currently, knowledge transmission in Woodstock
occurs for instance as a direct social practice in
Connie’s Store where information on interpretation of ice conditions are exchanged. Furthermore,
knowledge on sealing and fishing practices, as
well as on the marine environment, occurs on the
boat during the different phases of the seal hunt.
Transmission of unwritten knowledge, commonly
referred to as “folk” knowledge, therefore requires
that there are people that use it (Ingold 2011:368,
369). Reyes-­García et al. (2005) show that one way
to counter the loss of folk knowledge is through
schooling. This, of course, implies that the folk
knowledge is brought into a curriculum or a compendium, to be taught to students remaining in
the area. The constant trend of outmigration and
the long distances, as well as an aging population,
make this approach unfeasible for Woodstock.
Transmission of knowledge and skill surrounding
the marine environment inevitably weakens, altering the moral environment and the set of values
prevalent in the community.

Conclusion
Affordances, morality, and values are closely
intertwined. Due to the proximity to the sea and
responses to its affordances, certain elements of
human interaction in the community can only
be understood when considering geography and
affordances, and they are only conclusive within
this particular environment. This is what I have labeled “segmented moral relativism.” This encompasses different sets of moral decisions and actions
that are characteristic for specific situations and
contexts. As the example from Woodstock has
shown, the ability to provide by responding to the
affordances of the sea is the overarching moral
determinant of the actions carried out on a commercial sealing vessel. These actions furthermore
reflect back into the community where the seal
as part of the sea’s affordances shape social interaction. It therefore seems impossible to transport
those moral features prevalent in Woodstock that
are linked to the response to affordances of the sea

into other areas where these affordances are not
recognized.
Throughout the centuries, the perception of
the seal as an exploitable resource has not changed
in Newfoundland albeit there have been changes
in laws and the introduction of moral considerations from outside sources. While Woodstockers
consider primarily the usability of the seal, Canadian laws link the usability with the sensitiveness
of the animal, and opponents link sensitiveness
with nonusability. For Woodstockers and other
sealers to be able to further exploit the seal, adaptation to outer moral values—in this case “humane
harvesting”—is necessary, although danger of
injury (and thus possible impediment of ability to
exploit and to provide), the danger of reducing the
economic value of pelts, and ultimately the inability to provide create similar killing and skinning
techniques.
The affordances of the seal are not changed
through the market sphere, which, however, does
change community behavior and may reflect into
changes of the moral and therefore socioeconomic
structure of Woodstock. This is best exemplified
by the increase of subsistence activities in light
of dwindling economic feasibility, which I have
termed “relay economy.” Although the market for
seal products, and thus the large-scale hunt for
seals in Newfoundland, has undergone significant
decline with the rise of the protest movement, the
communities’ exposure to an increasingly globalized and connected world must also be taken into
consideration when finding a cause for community
dissolution. Therefore, although the knowledge
on seal hunting and fishing may provide food for
the community of Woodstock in times of economic
hardship, it is the lack of economic diversity, the
physical and mental strains, as well as uncertain
economic yields, which are cause for young Woodstockers to leave the community. In this sense,
sealing and fishing as the main economies have an
adverse effect on the social capital of Woodstock.
With a changing demographic structure
in northern Newfoundland and an increasingly
globalized world, the affordances of the sea may
change in the future. It is possible that the seal will
be perceived as a remnant of the past that does
have the potential to be exploited but whose affordances are confined to nonutility. In Woodstock,
moral and economic values guide the decision-­
making on how to exploit the seal, linking a
potential affordance with empirical considerations
and social actions, thus contradicting the “mirage
of relativism” (Laidlaw 2014:23). Gibson’s (1979)
affordance theory must therefore be extended by
a significant practical dimension that impacts the
social fabric in a small community like Woodstock. As shown, the interdependency among
affordance, value, and morality therefore goes

Morality, Practice, and Economy in a Commercial Sealing Community

beyond the notion of affordances being a “relation between the perceiver and the environment”
(Chemero 2003:186), but affordances should also
be considered as affecting the relations among the
perceivers.

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