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Having Your Seal and Eating it Too

By Kevin McGwin 

“It comes from here,” Anne-Sofie Hardenberg says, pointing to the small of her back with one hand while waving a chef’s knife at a box-shaped roast on a cutting board. We decide that if it had come from a pig, it would probably be a loin, or perhaps a rump roast.  

Hardenberg is a leading proponent of the Greenlandic kitchen, however. And when I meet her outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg last month, it’s not pork or beef she has prepared, but seal. Hardenberg’s cookery is part of a demonstration by Inuit seal hunters upset with the European Union’s ban on imports of seal products. In addition to the roast, there are cubes of liver that have been sautéed in blubber. The roast turns out to be particularly popular with passers-by. Most say it tastes like a rich roast beef. The liver is a tougher sell. 

One journalist, dispatched to cover the demonstration, which includes a Greenlandic choir and displays of sealskin products, walks around with her liver cube, perched on the tip of a tooth pick, for a good quarter of an hour before making it disappear. (I never found out what became of it.) Whether it was the taste of liver or the thought of eating seal in general that bothered her is hard to tell. But if it is the latter, she is not alone; a distaste for products from seal is something many in the south have developed over the past four decades. Their aversion is understandable: bloody images of clubbed seal pups continue to form the popular impression of seal hunting.

That image is one that Inuit communities in Greenland and northern Canada are hoping they can change. One thing they are quick to make clear is that the pictures stem from Greenpeace campaigns, launched in the early 1970s, protesting commercial seal hunting in eastern Canada. Inuit groups, on the other hand, have had their hunts deemed sustainable by the WWF, another conservation group, and Greenpeace itself. 

Another aspect that upsets the Inuit about the discussion over seal hunting is the choice of terms used by animal rights groups, which they say puts off consumers to seal products by humanizing them. For example, the proper term for a young seal, they note, is ‘pup,’ not ‘baby’.

Europe’s ban does include an exemption for seals killed as part of subsistence hunting by Inuit communities. But the fact that the sale of sealskin to Europe has, according to statistics compiled by Greenlandic hunters, fallen 90 percent since the ban was enacted in 2010 is a sign that the exemption has not had its intended effect. The Inuit fear that their situation may now go from bad to worse. In 2014, the WTO, acting on a complaint by Norwegian and Canadian hunters, ruled that the ban, though limited to trade, was “necessary to protect public morals.”

Worse for the Inuit was that the WTO decision cast doubt on the validity of the exemption, noting that it discriminated against imports from other non-EU countries. Brussels has agreed to make changes by October. While the Inuit would prefer to see the ban dropped entirely, they recognize that is unlikely. At a minimum, they would like to see the exemption retained in some format. They also hope that the EU will make good on its promise to inform consumers and, not least, customs agents of the Inuit exemption and the sustainability of their hunt. 

Anne-Sofie Hardenberg prepares a seal meat dish in Strasbourg.

Greenland has repeatedly sought to make consumers aware of the Inuit exemption on its own, but to little avail. At the most recent wholesale fur auction in Copenhagen, a major hub of the industry, sales of seal pelts were below expectations. Recognizing that changing tastes (and possibly even warmer weather) could just as well be to blame for the decline in sealskin as the EU ban, furriers are looking to new markets in the East, particularly China. But even if attitudes toward animals are different there, it may not mean more sales, since Chinese tastes are heavily influenced by the West, fashion industry sources point out. If fur is out in London, New York, and Paris, it will also remain on the racks in Beijing.

Another option has been to go the political route. With a draft of the revised ban making its way through the European Parliament, Nuuk has begun to work its connections in the EU, culminating with a visit by Karl-Kristian Kruse, the hunting and fishing minister, to Brussels in March. Their lobbying efforts have concentrated on members of Internal Market and the International Trade committees, which were responsible for deciding on the wording of the revised ban that the full parliament will vote on later this year.

Greenpeace, too, has weighed in on the side of the Inuit, repeatedly expressing its regret for the harmful effects the campaign had on Northern communities. It has also come out in support of Inuit sealing on several occasions, most recently in a letter sent to the two committees urging them to continue to exempt seal products from traditional hunts. The response in both cases has been tepid. Lawmakers on the trade committee say the lobbying and especially the demonstration have given MEPs a better idea of what’s at stake, but they reckon that about half of them are willing to make it easier for Inuit to sell their products to Europeans.

Social media has been another outlet for discussing the seal ban, although this, too, seems to only have had moderate success in winning over skeptical consumers or lawmakers. One way it has proven useful is in galvanizing Inuit resistance, including sparking a trend last year of sharing ‘sealfies' (people taking selfies while wearing or eating seal) as a sign of solidarity. Ironically, at the same time as Inuit were busy swapping their sealfies, officials in Greenland were unveiling their mascot for the 2016 Arctic Winter Games, a biennial sporting event for people from the North. The choice of the big-eyed, smiling seal named Kuluk proves that, at least in the North, you can have your seal and eat it too.

*****

*****

Kevin McGwin is a reporter for The Arctic Journal.

[Photo by Kitty Terwolbeck]

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