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EU Sealskin ban and the Inuit exemption

Did you know?

An unknown Inuit exemption - with dire economic consequences for hunters in Greenland

The anti-sealing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s, directed towards the Canadian commercial hunt of harp seal pup (‘white-coats’ or ‘baby seals’) with clubs and hakapiks, made the world market prices on sealskin collapse — also in Greenland where this type of hunt is not practiced. The campaigns were not aimed at the Greenlandic seal hunt, but the consequences were as severe. In 1983, the Council of Ministers of the European Economic Community (EEC) adopted a directive (Council Directive 83/129/EEC) banning the import of skins of harp seal pups into the EEC.

The directive was meant to ‘only apply to products not resulting from traditional hunting by the Inuit people’ (article 3), but the impact on the Greenlandic sealskin business was severe. The ban destroyed the market for not only the commercial sealing industry, but the overall Inuit trade in sealskin as well. The value of sealskins dropped significantly, as a consequence, the Greenlandic subsistence hunting on seal became heavily subsidized as hunting seals was and is no longer an economically viable way of living for the Greenlandic hunters without a subsidy (Government of Greenland 2012).

In 2009, an EU directive concerning trade in seal products was adopted (Regulation (EC) No 1007/2009), which entered into force on August 2010 (Com Reg (EU) No 737/2010), making a total import ban on commercial seal products into the EU a reality.

The regulations include an Inuit exemption: "The fundamental economic and social interests of Inuit communities engaged in the hunting of seals as a means to ensure their subsistence should not be adversely affected. (…) Placing on the market of seal products which result from hunts traditionally conducted by Inuit and other indigenous communities and which contribute to their subsistence should be allowed. (…) In particular the Commission should be empowered to define the conditions for the placing on the market of seal products which result from hunts traditionally conducted by Inuit and other indigenous communities and contribute to their subsistence".

This exemption should de facto give the Inuit people monopoly on the European sealskin market. But the exemption is not well-known to the public and the impact of the ban has been devastating, undermining the entire market for sealskin products and not only the intended products stemming from commercial sealing.

According to the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), an import ban on seal products is a clear violation of international agreements and cannot be justified as an exemption of these rules. The ban is also not in accordance with the United Nations (UN) adopted decisions regarding the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to use their natural resources (Government of Greenland 2012). 

FUgarte WG IMG 0815 skins drying frame v FUgarte WG IMG 0723 skins drying house v
Drying sealskins in Greenland. Photos: F. Ugarte