This article is part of our special report Seal of approval: Greenland fights stereotypes on Inuit hunt.
Seal hunting has been associated with images of animal cruelty, Brigitte Bardot hugging a seal pup, and environmental groups asking for it to be banned, which the EU eventually did.
The outcome has been disastrous for indigenous people, who traditionally live off the sea, but Greenland is now fighting to turn things around by informing consumers on the sustainability of Inuit seal products, in a campaign conducted with the support of the European Commission.
In 2009, the EU implemented a ban on imports of sealskin products “on moral grounds”. Canada, where seal hunting is a commercial activity, started a trade war in the WTO but in 2014 the latter upheld the EU ban, much to the displeasure of Inuit communities who have for centuries hunted and relied on seals for food, clothing and energy.
The seal’s blubber, a thick layer of fat that keeps them warm in the Arctic winter, is used as fuel for lighting and heating (there are no trees in the Arctic), and its bones are used for handicraft and arts. Inuits waste nothing from the seal and only hunt as many as they need to eat.
Under international law, indigenous people have the right to secure and enjoy their own means of subsistence and engage in traditional economic activities. Yet Inuit communities have received a lot of bashing for their traditional ways of life.
Hovak Johnston, an Inuit artist from Nunavuk (Canada), recalled how her son was bullied for posting on social media a selfie wearing a traditional seal parka she made for his graduation: “To take seal hunting away from us is quite significant – you take a lot of our pride away.”
The Inuit exception
In 2015, the EU recognised the exception for Inuit and other indigenous groups, whose sealskins can be traded legally, provided they are accompanied by an authorised certificate.
Yet this was not sufficient to recover trade: the price of sealskin, which averaged at 600dk (€80) in 2006, dropped by 60% in 2009 as a result of the ban. It has failed to recover since – averaging some 280dk (around €40) in 2016.
A number of isolated Inuit communities in Greenland are completely dependent on trade in sealskin to buy the necessities they can’t produce. Greenland is a self-governing part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Currently, The Greenlandic government fully subsidises the trade by buying hides from hunters.
“One of these communities has one helicopter connection once a week, when the weather is good. Even if we develop the way we hunt and process, it will never be a mass industry. But we do hope that one day it will be economically sustainable,” said Bjarne Lyberth, representing Greenlandic hunters and fishers.
The price is low and sales difficult, because of consumers’ weariness, according to Ditte Sorknæs, CEO of a public-owned tannery and workshop Greater Greenland, trading in sealskins since 1977.
For this reason, she came up with the idea of accompanying Inuit sealskin products with a QR code, allowing consumers to check their legality and sustainability by scanning the label with their phone. The label will take them to a page by the European Commission, informing them of the Inuit exception to the ban.
The initiative, spearheaded by Greenland, involves indigenous communities across the Arctic, and got the European Commission’s seal of approval:
“The WTO recognised the legitimacy of the ban for seal products for moral reasons. We may like it or not, but we have to do it. But the Commission commits to informing EU citizens of the existence of this exception”, said a spokesperson for DG ENVI.
Protecting the seal starts in Europe
The two species hunted by Inuit in Greenland, the Harp Seal and the Ringed Seal, are listed as “least concerned” by IUCN’s red list of threatened species, and scientists say they may have reached their environment’s carrying capacity, beyond which they can’t grow in numbers.
But the threats to seals come in other forms: Arctic drilling and climate change, which are reducing their habitats. Gert Polet, of the WWF’s environment program, said: “The Arctic will look different and we have to take drastic steps in the Arctic, managing populations responsibly, but especially outside the Arctic, where we are emitting all the CO2.”
Genevieve Desportes, a biologist with the international body for marine mammals in the Arctic (NAMMCO), thinks Inuit seal hunting is sustainable because of its responsible harvest levels, the use of abundant local resources for local use, and limited waste and impact on the environment. Its alternative (importing food, outerwear, and fuel), on the contrary, has huge environmental costs.
“The big problem for marine mammals is pollution. But then, we Europeans have to clean our own garden,” she said.