Meeting the Ombudsman: The Conclusion Of Operation Desert Seal
After years of campaigning against the annual seal harvest in Namibia, things finally came to a head when Namibia's ombudsman convened a meeting between stakeholders and concerned parties. This was thanks to the persistent efforts of Seal Alert South Africa and Sea Shepherd. The agenda included discussion pertaining to the legality of the harvest, exploitation of living natural resources, and methods of killing seals in Namibia. A total of eight anti-seal-harvest lobbying groups attended. Only three pro-seal-harvest groups were allocated a slot on the agenda, although one of them did not attend.
Attending members included:
Nikki Botha – South African Seal Saving Initiative (South Africa)
Steve Roest – Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (United Kingdom)
Laurens de Groot – Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (Netherlands)
Pat Dickens – The Seals of Nam (South Africa)
Peter Edwards – Attorney representing Seal Alert South Africa, WSPA (International), and NSPCA (South Africa)
Sheryl Fink – IFAW (Canada)
Dr. Gibson - SPCA (Namibia)
Andries Venter – NSPCA (South Africa)
Representative – Seal Products (Pty) Ltd. (Namibia)
Representatives – Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (Namibia)
Prior to the meeting, delegates had an opportunity to mingle with each other and the press was granted photo opportunities for their respective publications. The ombudsman was open and inviting when informal discussions took place. He clearly articulated his expectations and the roles the various stakeholders had to play in the meeting. He pressed upon participants the importance of factual representation, as he could not come to fair and objective conclusions when making his findings based on emotion and supposition alone. In that respect, all the anti-sealing groups performed their task well. They presented a strong united front, arguing that the harvest is not only inhumane, but it is, without a shadow of a doubt, in violation and breach of constitutional and human rights based on local legislation pertaining to both the harvest and the protection of animals.
The South African Seal Saving Initiative (SA.SSI) presented evidence of human rights and constitutional violations in this particular marine mammal “conservation management” program; highlighted the documented link between animal abuse and domestic abuse; and, with solid CITES trade data, questioned how tightly this trade is actually regulated. On average, just under 42,000 sealskins and skin pieces are exported under the CITES agreement over a period of 16 years. This figure excludes data submitted for 2010 that shows that only four skins and six leather products were exported for the entire year. If the annual total allowable catch for the harvest is 85,000 pups and 6,000 bulls, it is reasonable to question the balance thereof when presented by export permits granted by CITES. Yet the Namibian government still maintains, as was stated at the meeting, that no contravention of the agreement takes place and that the agreement is taken seriously and conditions thereof are strictly adhered to.
A statement issued by the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources and published in newspapers on the morning of the meeting asserts that the Cape fur seal is not an endangered species as per Appendix II (CITES). It argues that this listing is a case of mistaken identity as the Cape fur seal looks like another seal species found elsewhere in the world.
This is the relevant portion of the page-long statement:
“The seal species Arctocephallus pusillus (Cape fur seal) in Namibia is NOT endangered. These seals are listed on Appendix II of CITES, not because they are endangered but because they look like Arctocephalus townsendi and seals in the families Otariidae and Phocidae which are endangered in other areas of the world.”
At the meeting, the representative of Seal Products (Pty) Ltd. failed to give any data/information or present the ombudsman with any facts to corroborate the legalities of the harvest. Instead he chose to spend his allotted 30 minutes attacking the majority of the stakeholders as interfering foreigners. He claimed that our presentations and arguments are based on nothing more than sensationalism and emotion.
The representatives for the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources took a similar approach. The speaker for the group accused some stakeholders of doctoring footage of the harvest (taken by award-winning cameraman Bart Smithers) for sensational effect and saying that seals don’t eat fish. Again, references were made to “those people, these people, the foreigners, and the Europeans.” Poorly constructed and ill explained graphs were submitted as evidence to support sustainable utilization. Vague, unsubstantiated claims dominated his presentation. Two stakeholders were so offended by his speech that they got up and left.
The ombudsman was not there to deliver judgment, but to collect substantiated information in order to come to an informed conclusion regarding the legalities of the harvest. So he patiently continued to listen and ask questions if certain issues needed further clarification.
The stakeholders were deeply disappointed by the xenophobic attitude of the pro-harvest lobby representatives. Not only was this uncalled for, but it demonstrated a clear lack of understanding in their own processes and uncooperativeness in finding a peaceful, non-violent resolution to this issue. Although the ombudsman encouraged openness and honesty, the xenophobia marred the meeting and alienated friends of Namibia who have great concern over the impact of the harvest on the good citizens of a truly breathtaking country.
The ombudsman repeatedly requested that facts be presented, and the ill-prepared presentations delivered by the pro-harvest lobbying groups showed a lack of respect for his task. All stakeholders were given an equal opportunity, and these groups squandered a golden opportunity to prove anti-harvest lobbyists wrong. Their disdain prevented them from participating in a meaningful and constructive discussion. Many of the stakeholders went to great lengths and effort to present their arguments and listen to counterarguments. The majority took time away from their families to contribute to this meeting.
It is abundantly clear that we are not fighting a cause but rather an attitude based on nationalism and cultural pride. However, there is no excuse for exploitation, torture, maiming, and/or abuse of any kind. Culture should be a malleable, adaptable, and evolving concept.
In a subsequent newspaper article, also published in the state-owned New Era, Hatem Yavuz, a central character in the harvest, described the meeting as a “waste of time and noise pollution.”
This statement is insulting and disrespectful to the Office of the Ombudsman. It makes a complete mockery of the task entrusted to his office. It also implies that calling for stakeholders to present their arguments is nothing more than bureaucratic whitewash and that the ombudsman has no intention of honoring his commitment. SA.SSI and Sea Shepherd trust that his office will take this in to consideration when making his findings.
Our sincere gratitude goes to Vanessa, Elize, and advocate John Walters (the ombudsman) for the superb organization and the warm and friendly reception. Thank you also to Steve and Laurens from Sea Shepherd for your support and friendship, Pat and Sheryl, Dr. Gibson, Andries, and Francois. May we grow from strength to strength in our quest to change this world in to a peaceful home for all living beings.
*Sea Shepherd and SA.SSI believe in the preservation of all sentient life, but have a particular focus on marine mammals and the important roles these animals have to play in maintaining a healthy planet. It is on this basis that these two organizations have allocated resources to fight this senseless slaughter. The issue is not an exclusively Namibian issue. Actions such as the mass killing of apex predators have a domino effect on our oceans, and this domino effect is almost always a negative one. Both organizations will continue to oppose and actively engage those who believe in the desecration of that which constitutes 70% of our planet.