Skip to main content

Chef Anthony Bourdain comes to town to debate Eric Ripert.

A heated debate is raging among some of the biggest names in the food world over a boycott of Canadian seafood, a move aimed at ending the annual seal hunt.

At issue is the Chefs for Seals campaign launched by the Humane Society of the United States in 2005, which has received support from thousands of restaurants, grocery stores and celebrity chefs – including Mario Batali and Michael Symon – to boycott Canadian seafood until commercial seal-hunting is ended.

However, some chefs are criticizing the campaign.

"I'm all for protecting seals, but a total ban dooms the indigenous people above arctic circle to death or relocation,"  tweeted Anthony Bourdain on Monday, after the HSUS announced that more than 40 of Food & Wine Magazine's "best new chefs" have supported the campaign.

Although the boycott is not intended to target native seal-hunting for subsistence, Mr. Bourdain pointed out that "there is certainly a commercial dimension to indigenous seal hunts," and that people should not be stopped from making a living.

Mr. Bourdain, who has visited northern Quebec and spent time with Inuit seal hunters, called the HSUS campaign "ill-considered." (At least one of the boycott's signatories, Danny Bowien – owner and chef of the popular Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco and New York – seems to have reconsidered in light of Mr. Bourdain's comments, tweeting "Oui, chef," in response on Monday.

"I completely understand well meaning intentions of good-hearted chefs who signed this petition," Mr. Bourdain tweeted. "But they are wrong. Visit the Inuit."

Dave McMillan, co-owner of Joe Beef in Montreal, also criticized the boycott, saying it hurts fishermen across the country. "It's hard work," Mr. McMillan said in an interview. "It's a nightmare – it's akin to coal mining, for real. I've never met a very rich mussel fisherman, oyster fisherman."

He also called the boycott hypocritical. "Americans should look no further than their chicken industry, their processed junk food, their soda drinks before they look at the Inuit hunt of seals," he said.

"I like to listen to scientists, conservation groups, people at Indian Affairs, things like that," he said. "But a chef from Seattle? Really?"

Frank Pinhorn, the executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association based in Newfoundland, added that the group of chefs "have absolutely no appreciation for what it means to live in a rural community and depend upon the ocean day upon day for a living." Newfoundland and Labrador has about 11,000 licensed sealers, he said, many of whom depend on seal-hunting.

The reality, he said, is that "some of the lowest incomes in Canada are in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, all who depend on the ocean for their living."

But the HSUS defended its ban on Tuesday. The HSUS has received the support of more than 6,500 restaurants and grocery stores since 2005, said Kathryn Kullberg, the organization's director of wildlife protection. Other big name participants in the boycott include Cat Cora, Kerry Simon, Trader Joe's, and Michael Voltaggio.

"We decided that this was the best tactic to put pressure on the Canadian seafood industry to end the barbaric slaughter of baby seals for their fur once and for all," Ms. Kullberg said. "These chefs object to the slaughter of these baby seals, and they're in a unique position to do something." (The Canadian Sealers Association denies that seals are hunted just for their fur, saying that the animals are also used for their meat and Omega-3 oils).

Ms. Kullberg repeated that the boycott is intended to target only commercial seal hunters – not native subsistence hunters – and said that many of the fishermen affected by the boycott also hunt seals.

"They're the same men, the same boats, it's the same industry," she said.

Mario Batali, co-owner of Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca and Del Posto in New York, stood by his decision to support the boycott Tuesday. "I'm holding Canada accountable for its policy," he tweeted.

Ms. Kullberg added that some of the chefs who signed a pledge agreed only to boycott certain types of Canadian seafood. At least three signatories, Scott Conant (chef at Scarpetta Restaurants), Whole Foods, and Old Spaghetti Factory, have locations in Canada.

Margaret Wittenberg, global vice president of quality standards and public affairs at Whole Foods wrote in a statement that the company has suspended the purchase of some but not all of seafood from Canada, and only from areas where the seal hunt occurs. "We believe it would be unfair to punish fishermen in other parts of Canada who are uninvolved in the seal hunt," she wrote.