EU Seal Ban Maims Indigenous Way of Life in the Arctic

A European Union court in Luxembourg has upheld its ban on the commercial trade of seal products despite a challenge from Canada's Inuit and several Canadian lawmakers that it cripples the indigenous people's ability to make a living.

The court's decision on 25 April, 2013 came after the Inuit Tapirii Kanatami and 20 other Inuit and sealing rights groups petitioned to overturn the seal ban, pointing out the importance of the seal hunt to Arctic dwellers for meat and income, critical in light of the increasingly high cost of living in the north.

The ban, enacted in 2009, prohibits the sale of seal meat, pelt, and oils. Though it includes an exemption for indigenous sealers, critics argue that the exemption has failed because the price of seal pelts has plummeted since the introduction of market restrictions.

Leona Aglukkaq (@leonaaglukkaq), a Conservative Party member of Canada's Parliament, regional minister for the North in Canada, and Inuk herself, slammed the court's decision:

@leonaaglukkaq: “Ban on seal products adopted in the EU was a political decision that has no basis in fact or science #sustainablehunt-

Canadian lawmakers are next slated to challenge the seal ban within the World Trade Organization (WTO), proposing that it “amounts to an illegal restriction of trade.” Norway also stated it would confront the WTO on the seal ban.

The seal hunt is one of the most stigmatized hunts in the world, with opponents evoking brutal images of clubbed baby seals. Organizations from the US Humane Society, PETA, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have launched campaigns against the Canadian industry.

The EU cited concerns that seal hunted methods caused pain and distress to the animals. European leaders who brought the ban into force in 2009 called the seal hunt “cruel, inhumane, and unacceptable.”

Seal ban impact on indigenous communities


Inuit of Nunavut prepare a seal skin for clothing.

Inuit of Nunavut prepare a seal skin for clothing. Photo by Rachael Petersen

However, the seal hunt ban is dealing a terrible blow to Inuit communities, which utilize all parts of the animal for food and clothing.

Canadian Marine biologist Dr. Alan Emery commented on anti-sealing initiatives on his blog over a year ago:

While the intentions of the anti-seal activists are laudable, in at least the case of the Inuit people, the indiscriminate strategy of undermining the market for sealskin has had a profoundly negative impact on the Inuit people who do not really have an option to move to a second income source. This has resulted in an increased loss of income and added to food insecurity for the Inuit people. …The Inuit people have been dealt some very damaging blows: most Inuit families have been forced by government fiat to give up their semi-nomadic lifestyles and instead live in settlements provided by the government. The provided housing is of poor standards and there are relatively few opportunities to make a living in their “modern” settlements so most Inuit families are living a substandard Canadian lifestyle.

The government of the northernmost Canadian territory of Nunavut conducted an analysis of the effects of the EU ban on Inuit. The full study can be downloaded in full here [iu, en]. The report pointed out:

Seal hunting has been a cornerstone of Inuit culture, nutrition and survival in the Arctic for millennia. Since the introduction of the cash economy in the Canadian Arctic, seal hunting has also been an important factor in the socio-economic well-being of Inuit. Seal hunting in Nunavut occurs year-round and is an important part of daily life in every coastal community.

Hunting seal near Igloolik, Nunavut. Photo by Rachael Petersen

Hunting seal near Igloolik, Nunavut. Photo by Rachael Petersen

The European Bureau for Conservation and Development conducted a study investigating the impact of the EU seal ban on the Inuit of Greenland, concluding similarly that:

the EU seal ban is destroying the sealskin market and undermining the traditional way of life of thousands of indigenous people who depend on marine resources for their livelihood.

Madeline Redfern (@madinuk), the former mayor of Nunavut's capital of Iqaluit and president Ajungi Arctic Consulting, a group of Arctic public policy experts, echoed these sentiments in a series of tweets on 25 April, 2013 following the EU's ruling:

@madinuk: Animal rights target vulnerable minorities, usually indigenous ppls animal byproducts/economies – easier than mainstream products.

@madinuk: Dangerous precedent. EU legislators accepted animal rights agenda based on cultural prejudices~who/what minority product is next?!

@madinuk: EU seal ban isn't just bad for Inuit its bad for any/all animal producer/user b/c based on ‘morality’ not science/sustainability


Social media and sealing rights

Social media has been a powerful tool in bringing to light the reality of traditional hunting practices in the North. Maatalii Okalik (@maatalii), president of Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre, tweeted a photo of Inuit youth from Nunavut promoting the seal hunt on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on 24 April, 2013:

Inuit of Nunavut support sealing on Parliament Hill. Image courtesy of Maatalii Okalik.

Inuit of Nunavut support sealing on Parliament Hill. Image from Twitter user Maatalii Okalik.

A Facebook group “Nunavut Hunting Stories of the Day,” started by a 36-year-old Inuk in Nunavut, now boasts almost 37,000 members across the Canadian North as well as Alaska and Greenland. Indigenous members post photos and videos – both current and historical – and share stories of trips out on the land in the North. The hope is to create awareness of native hunting rights and to teach young people who may not have the chance to go hunting anymore how their elders and ancestors lived.

A grassroots group called “No Seal No Deal” recently formed to defend native sealing rights. According to their site, the group was founded “by a group of Inuit taking part in a grassroots movement to educate the international community about Inuit seal hunting, the seal skin market, and how Inuit are affected by international trade bans on seal products.”

The group is petitioning Canada to refuse granting the EU observer status to the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that addresses Arctic issues. The Arctic Council includes member states Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the US. Members of the movement point out the Arctic Council’s 2011 Nuuk Declaration requires observer applicants “demonstrate respect for the aboriginal peoples of the Arctic.” They hold that the EU should be denied entry because of the negative effects of the seal ban on indigenous communities of the North.

No Seal No Deal will submit their petition to Canadian Parliament by 1 May, 2013. You can read more about the  movement on their Facebook page.


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