A controversial new business that makes sausages out of seals on Russia's Pacific coast has prompted an outcry, with more than 160,000 people signing a petition in protest.
While commercial seal hunting has been on the decline in the West after decades of animal rights campaigns, an entrepreneur in the Magadan region believes it's an “empty niche” ripe to be exploited.
In response, thousands of Russians have spoken out to insist that “seals are not sausage”.
The government of the remote region announced last month that a private company had killed 137 seals to produce sausage, which it dubbed “Kolyma know-how” in reference to Magadan's Stalin-era name, when the area was infamous for brutal gulag work camps.
“Such food wasn't produced even in Soviet times. The meat of captured animals went for feed at farms raising Arctic foxes and mink,” it said in a statement seeking to drum up investment.
“But according to dietitians, seal meat possesses not only a good taste, but also nutritional value.”
The entrepreneur behind the venture, Vasily Borisov, told Magadan media that his company produced 10,000 cans of spotted seal meat as well as seal fat and seal bacon in 2018.
He now has a government grant to start production of seal sausage and pâté. Mr Borisov described seal products as a virtual panacea that raises immunity, improves vision, clears respiratory passages, prevents heart attacks and inflammation, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol and even helps people withstand chemotherapy.
“I'm ready to provide seal fat to any kindergarten class, like in old times,” Mr Borisov told local officials. “A spoonful a day, just like in our childhood.”
A Change.org petition addressed to Vladimir Putin, however, has argued that the production of seal sausages was not local “know-how” but a “primeval” and “immoral” practice that could threaten seal species.
It also disputed the health benefits of the animals' fatty meat, noting that Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in many other foods.
“(Seal hunting) remains among indigenous peoples as a relic of their traditions. Commercial seal hunting has no place in the 21st century,” it said. “Humanity in its relatively short history has brought too much misfortune to seals and marine mammals.”
Mr Borisov has previously argued that an annual catch of a few hundred would not affect the population of 50,000 spotted seals in eastern Russia, claiming that 6,000 seals already die each year in fishing nets.
Spotted seals are not a protected species. He noted that commercial seal hunting can increase fish stocks and is allowed in Norway and Canada.
But the practice has died out in Norway after the European Union banned seal products and Oslo cancelled subsidies for hunters.
In Canada, PM Justin Trudeau reportedly receives more letters complaining about the seal industry than any other topic.
The controversy stems from the fact that seals have traditionally been clubbed to death on the ice.
Even when hunters shoot them from ships, a “jumper” with a hooked hammer is still typically sent out to retrieve the carcasses—and finish any survivors off with a few blows to the head.
Greenpeace has opposed commercial seal hunting while supporting traditional hunting by indigenous peoples.
The World Wildlife Federation, on the other hand, has previously argued that hunting does not pose a threat to the Canadian harp seal population and suggested that climate change could become a greater danger to seals.
David Attenborough's Our Planet series this month highlighted how climate change was impacting species like ringed seals, which are having difficulty building dens as the Arctic sea ice melts north of Norway.