An Open Letter To Captain Paul Watson on the Misguided Ire at the WWF, Greenpeace International and the Inuit

Dear ‪Captain Paul Watson--

Some years ago, I sat next to an Austrian man on a plane headed to Resolute Bay, in the Canadian high Arctic. We started a conversation and the man asked what I was doing this far North. I told him that I was going up to shoot Polar Bears and other Arctic wildlife.

His face lit up and he shared that he, too, was going up to shoot a Polar Bear. Un-phased by the singular grammar in his sentence, I asked what he was shooting with. It took a moment of disbelief before I grasped that his ax was not a camera. That little bespectacled man sitting next to me had made the journey from Austria to murder one of the world's most magnificent apex predators. My incredulity hung long enough for him to go on telling me, with contained but noteworthy excitement, that he had paid $40,000 for his kill. I looked at him in disgust while the acid in my stomach beckoned, as if to say: go on, vomit on this miserable excuse of a human being! A week later, I learned from my Inuit friends that the man had taken his bear.

Captain Watson, I share this anecdote in light of the recent polemic pitting your strong position against the WWF and Greenpeace International concerning Polar Bear hunting, and the Inuit practice of selling their quota licenses to trophy hunters. I have been and remain a fan of the critical work that you do around the world, at great physical and legal risks to yourself and your organization. But while it may come as a surprise, given the story that I just related, I believe that your vociferous denouncement glazes over the complexity of an issue that can easily be over-simplified into a headline grabbers.

In a media world dominated by sound bites and half-truths, I feel compelled to balance your argument from what I find to be an opportunistic stance. For the sake of full disclosure, I have no connection to either the WWF or Greenpeace International, but I have committed my life to advocating for the protection of the Arctic and to raise awareness to the systemic transformations taking place there, from anthropogenic activities. (I also sit on the Board of Global Green USA another NGO working on climate issues). In case it was not clear, I do not support hunting, for trophy or otherwise, unless directly tied to sustenance, or population control.

In your harsh judgment against the WWF and Greenpeace Int'l, you accuse them of implicitly supporting trophy hunting from their assertion that Polar Bear hunting in Canada is sustainable. And you denounce the sale by Inuit of their government-issued licenses to trophy hunters. (A full summary of your statement can be found here). You accurately state that traditional Inuit hunting did not include high powered riffles and snow mobiles; and that "half of the bears that are killed are not actually shot by an Inuit hunter" but by trophy seekers who pay between $40,000 and $75,000 for a kill. To your point, that is big money. You have also brought up the killing of baby seals for their fur, a practice that I find just as tragic as you seem to. But unlike you, I don't consider myself in any position to tell Inuit hunters how to manage their tradition, anymore than I would tell the Amazon's Awa-Guaja tribe to refrain from killing Capuchin monkeys. And this is at the heart of the issue.

Perhaps your scathing attack should factor that managed harvest represents 3-4% of the global bear population, a threshold which independent scientists consider sustainable. To say that by acknowledging that research, the NGOs support trophy hunting feels oddly antagonistic. It also omits critical facts tied to Inuit rights, as defined by the Canadian government and as it relates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and more broadly to WWF and Greenpeace International themselves.

First, it might be helpful to consider the status of the Polar Bear populations in the wild. This is more complex than would appear, which may explain why the animal has not made the endangered list, in spite of the looming threat of climate change. Like all advocates, I am just as much a fan of the (rare) low hanging fruit, as you seem to be. But the reality is, bear population status is not as simple to pigeonhole. For one, these populations vary greatly depending on where they roam in the Arctic: some areas see an increase in individuals, and others a decrease.

Their migration patterns are mutating: some subpopulations are adapting to environmental changes. Whether to view this as a good or bad thing is another conversation. But the fact is, some Inuit communities are seeing more individuals, and others less. While there is a direct relationship between shorter winter freeze cycles; an ongoing retreat of the sea ice resulting in extended fasting periods for the animals; and a change in weaning behavior in mothers (all indicators of behavioral changes tied to climate change), it would be selective to ignore that the concentration of bears in some areas is seeing a notable increase which--for those selective areas--would remove the animal from a threatened consideration.

Overall, the bear population in the Arctic is about stable. Which is not to say that some subpopulations aren't facing increasing starvation cycles, early death, and behavioral changes. They do. The encroachment of commercial activities, pollution, and the impact of climate change on territorial hunting grounds are a grave threat to some declining sub-populations. In fact, an increase in cannibalism as one byproduct of climate change has been observed.

But the IUCN estimates the polar bear population at around 26,000 individuals, which has been the case for at least a decade. Hunting was regulated by international agreements in the 70's, which stabilized the overall numbers. According to the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) composed of bear researchers from the five circumpolar countries, of the 19 subpopulations of Polar Bears in the Arctic, 3 are declining, 6 are stable, 1 is increasing and the rest have insufficient data to make an accurate assessment. To use the mounting threat of climate change to qualify a ban on Inuit rights to hunt polar bears is mixing apples and oranges.

Aside from the marginal impact on overall numbers, it does not factor the Inuit culture's relationship to hunting, especially for a population who has gone from the ice age to the space age in about fifty years. While you are correct, Captain Watson, that today's Inuit benefit from modern tools that their traditional forebears did not have, it would be unfair to ignore how this came to be. Shorter winters have meant reduced hunting seasons out on the sea ice for the Inuit who have traditionally used dog sleds to hunt seals, a staple of their diet. When the sea ice melts, the hunting gets lean--just as it does for the bears.

In modern times, this has led to a new dependence on motorized transportations to cover more ground and widen their odds. As well, unreliable melting cycles have lead to extended periods of thin and sharp surface sea ice, which has rendered traditional animal skin canoes non-viable and hazardous, hastening a change to motorized skiffs. Importing gasoline to the high Arctic, however, is expensive; a cost that trickles down to a culture that, until very recently, only knew the barter economy. The shortage of food ushered more import of western commodities. And it didn't take long for the infiltration of economic opportunities from the lower latitudes to corrupt the Inuit way of life. Like so many indigenous communities before them, the Inuit were forced to adapt to a new transactional code dictated by cash currencies in a place where jobs are scarce. For a people forced to adapt dramatically in a short period, this new stress has been crippling. The toxic mix of unemployment and government subsidies soon translated in the weakening of local values and the collateral emergence of substance abuse and petty crimes among the new generation. For the Arctic's human population, 4,000 years of adaptive evolution has proven no match to the sudden onslaught of the carbon economy's global impact.

In Canada, quotas for Polar Bear hunting are strictly enforced, and communities are given a limited amount of days to make one kill, before the license goes to another community. Violations are severely fined. The Inuit are not threatening the numbers of individuals with the sale of licenses, beyond what they would by making their own kill. The concept of trophy hunting is abhorrent to me, as it evidently is to you too, Captain Watson. But to single out Inuit communities for carving out what amounts to a minor financial upside from an otherwise overwhelmingly crippling transformation is to belittle their rights, culture and relationship to their environment. Hastening accusations on them, the WWF or Greenpeace International is painting broad strokes that elude the relevant issues. Your righteous indignation, cast from the lower latitudes, has the odd resonance of patronizing an indigenous civilization that has been there long before we decided that it was incumbent upon us to police their behavior. That blue print already exists across the world, starting with our own United States. Let us be careful where and how we cast that stone--from our own glass house.

Climate change, and not hunting, is the real threat to the polar bear populations. And that is what the WWF and Greenpeace International are advocating while respecting the rights of the indigenous communities of the high North. It is a position that I share. But I would gladly join you to denounce the loathsome practice of wealthy westerners to trophy hunt. And with that said, I continue to admire your unwavering commitment to principles: the world is better with you in it.

Sebastian Copeland
Polar Explorer, advocate