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The Question of Inuit Sealing: 'Sealfies', Subsistence Sealing, and Commercial Sealing

Some Inuit of Canada and their supporters have been promoting the harp seal hunt in Canada and connecting their sealing with the commercial seal hunt of Newfoundland and the Magdalen Islands.


Inuit 'Sealfies'

Rebecca Mearns in seal skin jacket

In March 2014, Ellen DeGeneres took a 'selfie' at the Oscars which was re-tweeted enough to win a $3 million prize from Samsung, half of which Ellen donated to HSUS to help end Canada's seal hunt.

After this 'selfie', some Inuit and their supporters decided to post 'sealfies', in which they promoted sealing and posted pictures of themselves in sealskin coats and with seals they've killed.

This was just one of the efforts to confound the commercial seal hunt with Inuit sealing.

Newfoundland and Magdalen Islands commercial fishermen participate in the commercial seal hunt. Few Inuit participate in this commercial activity.

Inuit with killed seal pups
Inuit with four dead harp seal pups

Some Inuit sell seal skin products from adult seals they kill. They use the meat and blubber of these seals, as their ancestors did for millennia. They are not subject to government quotas or targeted by anti-seal hunt activists.

A few Inuit target seal pups, who are not good sources of meat, due to their small size, but are better sources of fur for commercial sale to fashion houses.

As of July 2015, proposed modifications to the European Union ban on seal product imports state, "Inuits will be allowed to sell seal products in the EU only if their hunting methods have due regard to animal welfare, are a part of their tradition and contribute to its subsistence." We will see whether the EU determines that the products obtained from seal pups meet these requirements.

Below we go into detail on Inuit history and their relationship to and use of seals.


Inuit history

In the 1500's, Europeans established colonies in regions of northern Canada occupied by the Inuit. Contact with the Europeans influenced the Inuit way of life from the beginning.

Traditional Inuit sled- photo by Ansgar Walk
Traditional Inuit sled. Photo by Ansgar Walk

These influences grew in the 1800's as missionaries proselytized the Inuit. Today, most are Christians, though their traditional Shamanism still influences their religious beliefs.

In the 20th century, the European/Canadian influence on the Inuit grew stronger as the Canadian government ruled that the Inuit were Indians and therefore under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

In the mid-20th century, the Canadian government established policies to encourage assimilation of the Inuit into Canadian culture. Instead of living in the traditional nomadic way, permanent communities were established with wooden buildings, and medical care was provided by the Canadian government. Boarding schools were established by the Canadian government in Inuit areas in the 1960's.

Modern Inuit culture

Modern Inuit culture includes traditional hunting and gathering in addition to consumption of foods transported from the south. Inuit consume sodas, processed foods, breads, and meats bought from grocery stores.

Today, Inuit work in mining, the petroleum industry, construction, tourism, government, and other occupations. All Inuit communities now have high speed internet access.

What is subsistence living?

Mary Simon - Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami
Mary Simon, head of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (Inuit council)

A subsistence way of life or subsistence economy is not based on money. Rather, it is based on noncommercial, traditional hunting and gathering for personal use such as food, clothing, shelter, and fuel. This way of life can include barter and sharing, but not commercial trade (export and import).

Today, the Inuit do not live the traditional subsistence lifestyle. With wooden houses, grocery stores, ATV's, snowmobiles, and other modern amenities and a money-based economy, the subsistence economy is a relic of the past.

The Inuit do, however, engage in 'subsistence-like' hunting - hunting of adult seals and using all parts themselves or sharing with their community. The flesh of seals and other wildlife still provide a substantial portion of the Inuit's daily calories (though significantly less for younger Inuit than older Inuit).

Nevertheless, when some Inuit kill seals, especially young seals, in order to sell commercially or export their skins to foreign countries, they are not engaging in subsistence hunting.

The Inuit lawsuit

Mother and baby seal
Seal mother with pup. Photo by IFAW

The Inuit Council (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami) (along with the Norwegian fur company G. C. Rieber and Sons, the Fur Institute of Canada, Nu Tan Furs / Atlantic Marine Products, and others) claim the EU ban on seal product imports violates the Inuits' human rights.

The EU ban on seal product imports specifically exempts products obtained by Inuit, if they meet certain criteria.

So why does the Inuit council claim that the European Union's ban on imports of seal products, which excludes products from seals killed by Inuit, violates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)?

Their lawsuit claims that the ban "unduly limits the subsistence possibilities of the applicants, relegating their economic activities to traditional hunting methods and subsistence."

One might first question what could be wrong with limiting "subsistence possibilities" to subsistence. But putting aside the odd wording, the next question one might ask is why exports of seal skins by Inuit would even be exempt from the EU ban, given that this trade is inconsistent with a subsistence economy and with the traditions of the Inuit.

What does the ECHR say?

Seal skin coats
Seal skin coats. Photo by Andy Wong, AP

The ECHR protects people's right to property, privacy, speech and expression while maintaining that nations can restrict personal freedoms when necessary.

The Inuit's rights would not be infringed by prohibiting seal skin imports into the EU, even if this ban were to include skins obtained by Inuit. The Inuit have maintained that they have the right to continue their traditional subsistence hunting, even though they no longer live in a subsistence economy. The Canadian government has granted the Inuit this right. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans sets quotas on the number of seals that sealers in the commercial seal hunt can kill, but Inuit and other Aboriginal people are exempt from these quotas.

Selling seal skins to the EU is not a basic human right nor is it consistent with subsistence hunting. Being able to command high prices for seal skins sold to the EU is certainly not a basic human right. For the Inuit to claim that, by reducing the market value of the pelts, the ban has infringed upon their rights is nothing short of ridiculous.

Harpseals.org's focus

Harpseals.org is focused on ending the commercial seal 'hunt', which primarily involves off-season fishermen from Newfoundland and Quebec. Harpseals.org is not targeting Inuit 'subsistence-like' sealing. Though we do not support commercial sealing by anyone, we are not focusing on the relatively few Inuit who engage in commercial sealing.


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