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April 23, 2007

Canadian taxpayers pay to rescue seal hunters

The Canadian Coast Guard is sending its heaviest icebreakers to rescue 450 seal hunters whose boats have been trapped by floating ice off Northern Newfoundland. [WaPo]

Update: I admire the Coast Guard for undertaking this mission and I'm proud that Canada has such advanced capabilities for rescuing people. I certainly don't bear the sealers any ill-will. I'm ambivalent about the hunt itself, but that's neither here nor there. These guys are in trouble. The Canadian way is to help first and ask questions later.

I just think it's important to keep track of the public and private costs of the hunt. The companies who profit shouldn't be allowed to quietly outsource occupational safety to the Canadian government.

If the Canadian taxpayers are footing the bill for an elaborate rescue mission, that's a precedent (and an ongoing liability) that should be taken into account when we assess the costs and benefits of allowing the seal hunt to continue--especially if there were any indication that these types of crises might become more common in the future due to climate change.


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I have been conflicted about this story since it began. On the one hand, I wish these people no harm; they're just trying to make a living. On the other hand, what a perfect living example of Karma in action.

I don't bear any ill will towards the sealers and I very much admire Canada's kickass Coast Guard for their brave rescue efforts.

I just think it's important to keep the full costs of the seal hunt in perspective. If we're spending a lot of money to intervene in failed hunts, that counts against some economic arguments for continuing the hunt.

Maybe this year's terrible weather is just an isolated incident. On the other hand, I have to wonder what the long-term forecast is in light of the looming climate crisis. If this kind of stuff is going to start happening most often, we might have to rethink the viability of the hunt.

If I were a seal, I'd be reciting Robert Frost right now: "Ice is nice and will suffice."

I'm not sure it's a "precedent;" Coast Guards around the world have always gone after people in trouble regardless of what they're doing out there, whether they're on an offshore oil rig or out on a pleasure cruise. I have weathered plenty of discussions in the online small-boat community where the ethics of going out in small craft have been debated, where the freedom to put yourself in harm's way (often just for the pleasure or challenge of it) is weighed against the costs to the rescuers. Some escapades are clearly unethical (like the inexperienced kook trying to circumnavigate Great Britain a few years ago in an inadequately tested small open boat) but in general there seems to be a great reluctance to link cost and benefit when the possibilities of rescue are involved. When evaluating the regulation of offshore fisheries, I don't think we figure in the cost of possible rescue of fishermen. Should we rescue people crabbing in the Bering Sea if people don't absolutely have to eat crab legs?

I think part of the reluctance to do the cost-benefit analysis stems from the fact that dangerous jobs are very real part of our heritage; to brave the elements to put food on the table is heroic and was once quite commonplace. And part of the social contract is that, if you're out there trying to put food on the table, the community will help you if you run into trouble. A lot of putting food on the table in past times involved snatching it from the claws of nature; now we grow it on well-regulated farms that snatch from nature's claws in much more subtle, though perhaps ultimately more destructive, ways. So you don't have to brave the elements, you can get a desk job at Archer Daniel Midlands, and if you run a staple through your finger, worker's comp will cover it. (I think. Maybe.)

Meanwhile, more and more of the rescuer's work is rescuing people who aren't doing jobs, but engaging in leisure. (The sailboat you bought with the proceeds of the Worker's Comp claim involving the staple). So things aren't as simple as they once seemed, but we hold up the old contract, even though it's not involving quite the same people.

M, I agree.

"Precedent" was the wrong word. My point is that this is a terrible year for floating ice in Northern Newfoundland. Just the reminder that conditions sometimes require a multi-million dollar rescue is worth taking into account. If there's any chance that these types of crises will get more common in the future, that's something else for the government to consider when assessing the merits of the seal hunt.

I didn't mean the precendent of going out and rescuing people in distress. I meant the data point of a terrible spring with very thick but very mobile ice chunks cooled by an unfavorable wind.

My feeling is that if you're first world country like Canada, you can afford to rescue whoever's in trouble and ask questions later. No judgments. I don't care if you're clubbing seals or dealing drugs or pleasure boating or delivering medicine to remote settlements. The Coast Guard shouldn't discriminate. It's there to help people at trouble on the seas. Period.

That said, there's a lot of debate in Canada about whether the economic benefits of the seal hunt offset the associated costs (environmental, PR, etc.).

I'm just saying that if the federal government has to pay for any multi-million dollar rescues, that's some reason for the government to think twice about re-authorizing the hunt each year.

The seal hunt is now about giving people who lost thier livelihood due to the cod depopulation something to do, and a way to make some money, that isn't an obvious handout. While the benefit to Canada as a whole is minimal, and arguably the benefit to the men involved is minimal (we could just extend their EI benefits) it is one more scrap of real work; some dignity, in an area of the country where there is so much that is crushing them.

An entire way of life, centuries old, largely went away with the cod and this is one of the scraps that's left.

And I can't bring myself to tear that scrap from their fingers.

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