Europe’s ban on seal products has been awful for Greenland’s Inuits, and for seals

The waters around Greenland are overpopulated with seals, and a lack of demand for seal products gives no one an incentive to hunt.
The waters around Greenland are overpopulated with seals, and a lack of demand for seal products gives no one an incentive to hunt.
Image: Reuters/John Jansen
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Strasbourg, France doesn’t seem like the type of place one might happen upon a group of Inuits. But that’s just what ministers of the European Parliament (MEPs) will find as they traverse the Quartier Européen this week, as a delegation of native Greenlanders lobby for the lifting of a 2009 European ban on seal products.

The Arctic visitors—who, living in an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, enjoy EU citizenship—will tempt MEPs with cuts of barbecued seal meat cooked on an open-air grill. The hope is to convince both lawmakers and the European public that the ban is not only misplaced—predicated on bloody images of clubbed, teddy-bear-faced baby seals—but actively contributing to the decline of Greenland’s native culture and livelihood.

Specifically, exports of seal pelts have dropped 90% in the years since the ban was implemented. The impact on Greenland’s coastal economy has been disastrous. Though the ban included an exemption for indigenous peoples in order to protect distinctive cultures and traditions, “the market seems to be negatively affected by the EU initiative,” a 2012 report compiled by the European Bureau for Conservation and Development (EBCD) states.

Many attribute the initiative, and others like it, to a campaign launched in the Canadian Arctic by Greenpeace in 1976—“a campaign that would come to define us as an organization for many years,” wrote Joanna Kerr, executive director of Greenpeace Canada in an op-ed for Nunatsiaq News, a weekly newspaper servicing Canada’s Inuit-majority regions of Nunavut and Nunavik. “The campaign had good intentions: to expose and end the commercial hunting of marine mammals, in particular Canada’s commercial seal hunt.” Greenpeace disseminated gory images of seal pups bludgeoned and eviscerated by inhumane, corporatist sealers—and it worked.

Sealhunting was deemed a universally evil practice; individuals and governments overlooking the sustainable, humane methods native Greenlanders and other indigenous Arctic peoples have employed for centuries. Today, they use rifles; pregnant females and the young are off limits. In many ways, it’s no different from deer hunting.

“The seals up here have lived a very good life,” said Martin Lidegaard, Denmark’s foreign minister, during a visit to Greenland. “They are hunted in a very sustainable way. The meat is eaten by the Greenlanders and the fur is sold. That’s as sustainable as it gets.”

Though Greenpeace claims it strove to differentiate between objectionable commercial sealing practices and “small-scale, subsistence hunting carried out by northern indigenous and coastal peoples,” the message didn’t transmit. “The campaign took on a life of it’s own and became global,” Kerr admitted, culminating in economically devastating EU ban; followed by a 2011 ban on the import and export of harp seal skins by the customs union of the Russian Federation, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Greenpeace has attempted to make amends. They’ve hired a number of Inuits to spearhead Arctic conservation efforts, advocated on behalf of Inuit communities affected by oil spills, and drafted international legislation for the protection of Arctic ecosystems—and, by extension, native ways of life—in conjunction with indigenous leaders from across the region.

But, for some of the Greenlanders lobbying in Strasbourg, the damage is already done. Demand for seal products around the world is at an all-time low.

Turnover for Great Greenland Ltd, a trading company that purchases sealskins from native Greenlandic hunters and sells them in Europe, has fallen by more than 60% in the last five years, according to EBCD. In 2011, only 38% of sales were export. Sales in the EU represented only 30% of that figure. Great Greenland, which employs a number of Inuit staff, has decreased its staff number by 89% in the years since the ban.

“There are many reasons explaining this decrease,” the EBCD report claims, “but the most important one is undoubtedly the EU trade ban and the fact that the Inuit exemption has not been applied properly.”

And there may not be much room for recovery. Even if the European Parliament reverses the 2009 ban, there simply isn’t a sufficient appetite for seal products among European consumers to make up for decades of lost business.

But there are still reasons to lift the ban. A decrease in sustainable sealhunting has led to—predictably—regional overpopulation. The seal population in the waters surrounding Greenland is an estimated 16 million (whereas the island’s human population barely crested 50,000 in 2013). They pose substantial competition to Greenland’s subsistence and commercial fishermen—a major problem for a country where fishing exports account for roughly 90% of economic output; and fish-product processing remains the largest industrial sector employing the most locals.

There is also “a severe risk of an influenza outbreak” within Greenland’s bloated seal population; a prospect only exacerbated by further unchecked breeding.

Greenpeace has acknowledged that its approach to regulating sealhunting was misguided. But Greenpeace, as scrappy an organization as it might be, only wields so much power. It’s time for Europe to reexamine laws crafted on faulty information, emotions over facts. And perhaps remunerate those communities who have lost millions of dollars in critical trade.