Which is more blue, Arctic sealing or the EU seal ban?

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Arctic sealing is a blue economy activity - the ban on sealing is not, according to NAMMCO. [Fernando Ugarte]

This article is part of our special report Seal of approval: Greenland fights stereotypes on Inuit hunt.

The EU advocates for Blue Economy, the new framework for sustainable growth in the marine sector. Does Arctic sealing, a traditional activity widely condemned by the EU and others, actually qualify as a component of the blue economy? writes Dr Geneviève Desportes.

Dr Geneviève Desportes is a biologist and General Secretary of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO).

Blue Economy espouses the desired Rio+20 outcome of “improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”.

On one side the human/social aspect: fostering the highest possible societal footprint by generating jobs and economic benefits whilst supporting inclusion and social value; on the other side the environmental aspect: triggering the lowest ecological footprint by minimising environmental costs and conserving biodiversity.

A high societal footprint

Sealing has been conducted for centuries by Inuit around the Arctic. It is a highly valued activity for three reasons. It represents a favoured food supply and also provides household material.

The sale of by-products, the skins and skin-made artefacts, generates a cash opportunity which in turn permits hunting to continue by making possible the acquisition of hunting equipment and fuel.

Lastly, it represents a trans-generational link with the sharing of unique local knowledge adapted to a specifically harsh environment. Arctic sealing decreases food insecurity and increases well-being. It is identity and culture, it is food for the body and the soul and possesses a high societal value.

A low ecological footprint

Sustainability is a key factor when examining ecological footprint but the ecological cost from “cradle to grave”, through extraction, production, distribution and disposal process of the resource, both in absolute and relative terms, needs also to be considered.

Sustainable – The two primarily hunted seal species in the Arctic are the ringed and the harp seals. The harp seal is the most abundant species in the northern hemisphere, numbering nine million animals that are widespread in the North Atlantic and the adjacent Arctic Ocean.

The five million ringed seals have a circumpolar distribution throughout the Arctic Basin and adjacent seas and are only hunted in a fraction of their remote and inaccessible habitat. Both species are assessed as “least concern” by IUCN and are considered able to sustain controlled removals.

Low carbon footprint. Seals are locally hunted and consumed. The hunt, using boats, snow scooters and dog sledges, requires very little (if any) non-renewable energy. There is no production chain and only local transport. The carbon footprint of seal products is very low and considerably lower than that of any flown-in resources (food & fabrics), the transport using non-renewable fossil fuel adding to the alternative product’s own carbon footprint.

Low collateral environmental costs. The various negative environmental impacts associated with intensive agriculture, farming and fishing such as pollution, habitat destruction and non-selective extraction (by-catch and discard), are not present in Arctic sealing. The pollution is limited to the boats, snow scooters & sledge dogs, and there is no habitat destruction, greenhouse gas emission is limited to that of the dogs. The extraction is selective, focussing on individual animals from specific species, sex and age, with for example the protection of white coats and mother-calf pairs. The collateral environmental costs are therefore very limited.

Resource efficient. Most of the resource is used and very little is wasted. The meat, blubber, flippers, some internal organs are used for human consumption, the leftovers are given to the sledge dogs, the bones, ligaments and oil are used in the household and the production of handicraft and jewellery, the skins are used for clothing, household and insulation. The resource is therefore used very efficiently – assuming the skins are used, and the disposal of natural by-products is not problematic for the environment.

Seal of approval: Greenland fights stereotypes on Inuit hunt

Greenland has launched an initiative to support Inuit and indigenous communities in Canada and the EU to improve the perception of sealskin products. It focuses on sewing in a QR code which allows consumers to check their legality by scanning the label with their phone and learn about Inuit seal hunting and why it is environmentally sustainable.

Arctic sealing, blue or not?

Does Arctic sealing then qualify as a component of the blue economy?

It increases food security, generates jobs and cash opportunities, favours social inclusion and identity. It is sustainably managed and does not have a negative impact on the resource.

By generating the use of local resources, it limits the need for and flown-in import of alternative food products and therefore reduces the environmental risks associated with the production of these alternative products.

Arctic sealing contributes to maximising the output of the marine ecosystem while respecting and supporting its integrity, and at the same time, it represents an economic activity that local stakeholders can control and have a genuine interest in preserving. When sustainable, Arctic sealing represents the use of resources that is well in balance with the environment and ecologically responsible, and its characteristics match the criteria of a blue activity.

The ban on sale of seal products, is it blue or not?

The ban results in discarding a by-product, the skins, thus making the resource less efficiently used. But the seals are still killed, as the purpose of the hunt is to produce food for human consumption.

Because the price of the skins is so low that it does not pay to process them, only one-third of the skins is presently sold in Greenland while the remaining two-thirds are simply discarded.

The ban has no effect on ecological scarcity, as the resource is plentiful and sustainably managed. But, by decreasing the access to and the use of low ecological footprint food and cash opportunities, it favours a high-energy option: the import of cheap flown-in food, mass-produced at a high ecological cost in other areas.

Because the skills of Arctic hunting and sealskin preparation get lost, the seal ban also means a loss of knowledge sharing, a loss of tradition and culture, thus leading to a globally poorer Arctic ecosystem.

Also, as wearing seal skin is negatively viewed in Europe, people who could wear ecologically responsible organic and long-life sealskin outfits will favour short life, artificial fabric of higher ecological – and sometimes societal – footprint. In other words, the ban increases the planet’s global clothing ecological footprint.

As an environmental scientist, I have difficulty seeing how the EU seal ban favouring ecologically costly options, with an Inuit exemption not associated with any sustainability criteria, could be in line with the blue economy.

Great Greenland CEO: seal hunting ban 'devastating' for Inuit communities

It is not profitable and may never be. And the EU has banned it. So why should seal hunting be supported? Because it is a sustainable way of life for Inuit people – and sometimes their only one. And the way forward for Greenland’s independence, says Ditte Sorknæs.