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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 commercial harp seal hunt in Canada and connecting their sealing with the commercial sealing in 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', 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.

Inuit sealing vs. Canada's commercial seal 'hunt'

Newfoundland and Magdalen Islands commercial fishermen participate in the commercial seal hunt. Few Inuit participate in this purely commercial activity of killing seals for their fur.

Inuit with killed seal pups
Inuit with four dead harp seal pups. This is an example of Inuit commercial sealing.

The Inuit have a long-standing tradition of killing seals, mostly ringed seals, but also harp seals, for food. Traditionally, they kill adult seals, because there is much more flesh on adult seals than on seal pups just weeks or a few months old.

They have also traditionally used the seals' skins as clothing. When they had extra skins, they would share or barter with their neighbors.

It would not make sense for Inuit involved in traditional sealing to target seal pups the way Atlantic Canada's commercial fishermen do. The commercial fishermen target pups because their young fur fetches higher prices from furriers. These fishermen dump the carcasses since few non-Inuit people care to eat the seals' flesh.

Some Inuit claim that efforts to end the commercial seal 'hunt' hurt them. They say that bans on seal skin imports by countries in the EU have resulted in lower prices for seal pelts and that their ability to earn a livelihood has suffered as a result. The truth is that the Nunavut provincial government pays them a fixed price, regardless of how market prices change for commercial fishermen in Newfoundland and the Magdalen Islands. The Nunavut government does not stop there. It provides several other subsidies to sealers and seal skin tailors or business owners as well.

What's more, sealing has never been a real industry in Nunavut. As Nunatsiaq Online's editorial board wrote in 2010, "in 2007-08, more than one year prior to the EU seal ban, only 1,101 Nunavut seal pelts, bought from hunters by the Government of Nunavut, were sold at auction, generating a grand total of $61,551 in sales. That represents less than the total salary earned by one low-level GN worker.

In 2008-09, Nunavut sales were better: 4,059 pelts, for a total of $155,485.

The seal hunt in Newfoundland, on the other hand, generates about $7 million a year, based on an annual cull of up to 280,000 seals."

In 2015, the EU modified the import ban on seal products to allow imports of seal products obtained by Inuit under certain circumstances, even though "A genuinely humane killing method cannot be effectively and consistently applied in the hunts conducted by the Inuit and other indigenous communities, just like in the other seal hunts."

The circumstances outlined in the amendment require that:

  • The hunt has been traditionally conducted by the community
  • The hunt contributes to the subsistence of the community and is not conducted primarily for commercial reasons
  • The hunt is conducted in a manner which reduces pain, distress, fear or other forms of suffering of the animals hunted to the extent possible taking into consideration the traditional way of life and the subsistence needs of the community.

We will see whether the EU prohibits products from seal pups, who would not be killed in accordance with traditional sealing.

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.

Today many Inuit look back on this aspect of their history with anger and many non-Inuit Canadians are ashamed of this government policy, particularly because the Canadian government prohibited students in boarding schools from speaking their mother tongue, in an effort to make them assimilate.

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.

Some Inuit also earn a living as artisans, creating stone sculptures, fabric wall hangings, jewelry, and paintings. The former mining town of Rankin Inlet has a thriving artisan community.

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' or traditional 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, for the purpose of selling skins 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) have claimed that 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 has the Inuit council claimed 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 claimed 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.

Nevertheless, the Inuit have a more well defined exemption, as of 2015, as decribed in the EU amendment.

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. Furthermore, the Nunavut government and Canada's federal government continue to provide subsidies to Inuit for their sealing, including buy backs of seal skins and millions of dollars in additional funds.

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. Harpseals.org also does not seek to limit government purchases or subsidies to Inuit for sealing or other purposes, though we prefer for the government to assist the Inuit in developing alternative sources of income.


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