Inuit exemption to European Union’s seal product ban is ineffective: report

“The regulation has not had a positive impact”

In addition to not having a positive impact on the socio-economic development of Inuit, the European Union’s seal product ban exemption for Inuit communities has had no impact on seal populations, nor has it increased the harvesting of seals, according to a recent report. (Photo by Pudloo Pitsiulak)

By Dustin Patar

The European Union should do more to raise public awareness about how its ban on seal products includes an exemption for Inuit communities, say the governments of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Greenland.

That’s according to a report published by the European Commission earlier this month, which finds that the 2015 amendment to the European seal product ban, which exempts “Inuit or other Indigenous communities,” has failed to have a positive impact on socioeconomic development.

“The Government of the Northwest Territories urges the EU to address the seal ban in a public forum and to issue a communique acknowledging the existence of the Inuit exception,” the report states.

“Provide targeted project funding in the field of education and outreach, allowing Inuit/Inuvialuit to advocate amongst consumers and the people of Europe.”

Greenland agrees.

“The trade in seal products is a legitimate and sustainable activity that should not be hampered or stigmatized, and that animal welfare is a concern to Inuit or other Indigenous communities.”

As part of its submission, Nunavut invited the EU to meet last week with it and other stakeholders to further discuss how the regulation could be implemented in a way that would maximize the benefits for Inuit.

The report states that the European Commission will organize a special meeting this year, with the stakeholders, to further discuss the trade of seal products.

“The regulation has not had a positive impact”

Originally hailed as a measure that would help rectify some of the issues caused by the ban, the amendment created a certification system that would allow Canadian Indigenous seal products into the EU market.

“We must ensure that communities benefit in a tangible way from this positive development by continuing to promote the recovery of international seal markets,” said Johnny Mike, who was Nunavut’s environment minister at the time, after the amendment was formalized in 2015.

Five years later, that’s not what has happened.

“For Nunavut, the regulation has not had a positive impact,” reads the EC report.

“The EU seal regime has opened a door, but is seen as a policed instrument.”

Despite being fully compliant with regulations, “Inuit women largely market their seal products locally, within their community, and do not export them to the EU.”

The report cites numerous reasons for this, including the fear of breaking EU seal product regulations, confusion about the certification systems, a lack of experience with international trade and a disconnect from buyers as a result of the ban.

According to data submitted to the European Commission by the Nunavut Department of Environment, ringed seal products from the territory were put on the market in France, the United Kingdom, Poland, Sweden and Estonia. Not shown on the graph is one harp seal product imported into Estonia in 2018. (Image courtesy of the European Commission)

EU market for seal products “destroyed”

Submitted to the European Parliament and Council in December as a requirement of both the original 2009 seal product ban and its amendment, the report is intended to assess the effectiveness of the regulation, as well as its impacts on Indigenous communities and seal populations.

Contributing to the report were all EU member states, with the exception of France, Greece, Luxembourg and Malta. In addition, the Greenland Department of Fisheries, the Government of N.W.T. and the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Environment also contributed to the report as part of their responsibilities as “recognized bodies” under the amendment.

According to data provided to the European Commission by the Nunavut Department of Environment, a total of 171 ringed seal products were put on the EU market between Oct. 2015 and Dec. 2018.

Norway, which isn’t covered by the report as it isn’t a member of the EU, imported 400 seal products from Nunavut in 2018 alone.

During the same time period, Greenland exported 52,341 seal products that were placed on the market in Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Although these numbers are higher than those of Nunavut, the number of seal skins sold on the international market by Greenland decreased by 54 per cent between 2015 and 2018, after the implementation of the exception.

Despite the export data provided by both Greenland, as seen above, and Nunavut, the only EU member state that reported having imported seal products under the “Inuit or other Indigenous communities” exception was Denmark. Neither Sweden nor the UK reported their imports. (Image courtesy of the European Commission)

Greenland has also seen a 35 per cent drop in the numbers of seals caught as a result of the original ban.

The same cannot be said for Nunavut.

According to the report, the 2009 ban didn’t affect seal populations in the territory, nor did the 2015 exception increase seal harvesting.

Meanwhile, since being recognized in Feb. 2017, the Government of N.W.T. hasn’t exported any seal products to EU markets. Instead, its raw pelt sales have been limited to the Canadian market, which doesn’t require verification of origin.

For N.W.T. “the EU seal regime has destroyed the EU market for seal products, and its negative impact on local Inuit and Inuvialuit economies is widespread,” the report states.

But even selling seal products domestically can be challenging.

“Pelts should automatically be certified”

As a result of the 2015 amendment, part of the responsibilities placed on the governments of Greenland, N.W.T. and Nunavut by the EU was the issuance of certifications, otherwise called attesting documents.

These documents indicate that the seal products they represent meet all the criteria of the “Inuit or other Indigenous communities” exception, meaning the hunt has traditionally been conducted by the community for subsistence purposes with due regard for animal welfare.

But as the report indicates, these certifications have been problematic.

As part of their submission to the EC, Nunavut included four key issues with the documents:

  • Currently, Nunavut’s system issues certificates for individual pelts. If the EC would allow a single certificate to represent multiple pelts, the territory would then be able to automate its certification system.
  • When crafting with seal products, it’s not uncommon to use multiple pelts in a single item, or conversely, multiple crafts could be made from a single pelt. Would the EC permit the issuance of certificates to crafters “who attest to only using seal pelts resulting from hunts by Inuit in their work,” if Nunavut commits to ensuring their compliance?
  • At present, certificates are required to state the name of the EU nation they’re destined for. However, this becomes complicated when one nation may import the raw product for use in crafts only to export it to another. In these cases, it isn’t possible for Nunavut to know the final destination of the product it has attested to. To account for this, Nunavut suggests that certificates not be obliged to specify destination countries.
  • Nunavut would like the EC to explore alternatives to physical certificates, suggesting a possible combination of stamps and tags to indicate which pelts have been tracked and attested to.

Along with these suggestions, Nunavut’s submission also asked the EC what to do when individuals enter the EU with both personal sealskin items and products to be sold.

For N.W.T., the big issue is that the system it currently uses can only verify handwritten certificates for whole seal pelts. Like Nunavut, there is no way to account for products made from multiple pelts, meaning each product has to be certified manually.

Since the exception went into effect, no EU member states have ever contacted customs authorities with  regard to the authenticity or correctness of an attesting document, an example of which can be seen above. The report also indicates that no EU countries refused to place seal products covered by the exception on their markets. The only issue identified by the report with regard to the acceptance of attesting documents occurred once in Portugal, where a document had to be translated into Portuguese. (Image courtesy of the European Commission)

“All seals harvested by Inuit/Inuvialuit in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories should be considered compliant and those pelts should automatically be certified,” said the N.W.T.’s submission.

Although the N.W.T. is in the process of modifying its system so as to better operate under the exception, it’s a step that requires funding, something that the EU has not committed to.

“The attestation costs would be higher than the value of the seal products the system is intended to monitor and certify under the EU Regulation and, therefore, these costs would have to be passed on to the Inuvialuit/Inuit themselves.”

While the suggestions included in the report may help the “Inuit or other Indigenous communities” exception become more effective in each of the three territories, Nunavut has also been proactively trying to find new markets for seal products overseas, spearheading initiatives like The Circumpolar Crafters Network.

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(14) Comments:

  1. Posted by David on

    “Provide targeted project funding in the field of education and outreach, allowing Inuit/Inuvialuit to advocate amongst consumers and the people of Europe.”
    Ummmm…. why would they do that? How is that in any way, the EU’s responsibility ?

    So if the makers of Smirnoff Vodka came and addressed the GN, and claimed the trade in alcohol is a legitimate and sustainable activity that should not be hampered or stigmatized by the prohibition of alcohol in several Nunavut communities. Further that the GN should provide targeted project funding in the field of education and outreach, allowing alcohol promoters to advocate amongst consumers and the people of Nunavut.

    What do you think the GN would do? Do you think they would take Smirnoff seriously?

    Better have a plan B.

  2. Posted by Look Elsewhere on

    Hard to imagine the EU willing to fund changes to a system they probably don’t even want. Isn’t that their choice?

    • Posted by John K on

      Just like seal hunting is ours. We need to get over ourselves if we really think we can defend our traditions one minute and then force others to participate the next.

  3. Posted by Pansy Brice, Ottawa. on

    I have always admired the beautiful seal skin clothing which
    is made by very gifted and skilled Inuit ladies.
    From what I have heard not to much seal skin clothing is seen
    in the home communities of Nunavut.
    Could a seal skin program for the people in Nunavut be
    started to make coats and jackets ?
    A good industry and employment on your own doorstep.

    • Posted by omfg on

      Wow, great idea Pansy! I can’t believe no one thought of this before you came along.

  4. Posted by let’s be realistic on

    Promotion or not, I don’t see how this market can expand in Europe. I was watching a French tv program the other day where people were complaining about fishing being a cruel activity…whether you agree or not is irrelevant: times have changed and there is strong political pressure against these activities which is exacerbated by social media.

    Even acquired legally, there’s a real stigma about wearing sealskin products in many places.

    As mentioned by posters above: develop the market where people want seal products. It’s not going to change in Europe.

    • Posted by David on

      You’re 100% right. I am having a hard time thinking of a worse market for Canadian seal skin than Europe.
      Meanwhile, Greenland is part of the EU and has a much lower cost of living than Nunavut. Greenland pelts are likely a lot cheaper. While not seal, eastern Europe and Russia have a ton of fur farms that would produce pelts cheap.
      The three countries that buy the most fur are USA, Russia and China. I’m sure considering Russia and China’s cost of living is so low, they see Nunavut prices as insane.
      None of this makes a lot of sense to me?
      I googled a really nice Greenlandic site that sells sealskin, and wow things were cheap.

    • Posted by INUK on

      I agree , Europe market is dryed up, go for the Asian / china market

  5. Posted by Taima on

    The EU looks out for EU businesses and sometimes for EU residents.
    The EU does not now, and has not ever, cared about Inuit or Nunavut.
    To expect otherwise is a waste of time and effort.
    Individual EU residents may care, but the EU does not and will not.

    EU businesses came and took the fish when EU residents wanted fish.
    EU businesses came and took the furs when EU residents wanted the furs.
    EU businesses came and took the trees from southern Canada when England wanted the tallest masts in the world for their sailing ships.
    EU businesses came and took the whales when EU residents wanted whale oil for their lamps.
    EU businesses are now taking the iron and the gold and the diamonds and the uranium from Nunavut because EU residents want those things.
    But the EU only cares about Nunavut and Inuit to the extent that it has to.
    If Inuit have no other way to earn a living except working in the mines, all the better for EU businesses.
    If Inuit could earn a good living harvesting seals and selling the pelts to EU residents, Inuit would have no reason to let EU businesses mine in Nunavut.


    • Posted by odd history on

      the, the EU isn’t even 30 years old, so I’m not sure whyyou’re blaming them for historical events centuries ago, but if it fits your worldview, go for it.

      why would you expect them to care about what happens in Canada canada is responsible for creating jobs for canadians, not people on another continent.

      always easier to blame others than to acknowledge hard local economic realities, and the need for radical change in lifestyle and sources of income – just ask the newfundlanders, as Bruce Springsteen said, these jobs are goin’ boys, and they ain’t comin’ back.

      • Posted by We don’t need No Education on

        The unspoken problem here in Nunavut, one that’s apparently neither polite to bring up and is intentionally ignored on a routine basis; this profound ignorance about the world and these absurd made up ideas about how things are that boggle the mind of people who have even a slight clue. Amazing.

  6. Posted by Putuguk on

    Colonialism – Noun – the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.

    Through the overall sealskin ban, the EU exerted partial political and economic control over seal producing regions by asserting their view of acceptable commerce. Further, when an exemption to the ban was made for indigenous peoples, they further exerted partial political and economic control over seal producing regions by specifying pre-conditions to lawful commerce.

    If we are serious about moving past colonialism in Nunavut, then it is high time that efforts to maintain or revive this specific market are ended.

    After more than 20 years of existence, we do not have a Nunavut Sealing Strategy. We have a patchwork of programs such as gathering skins for sale in the south and gathering a few of these to bring back to Nunavut for resale.

    One of the reasons so many skins from Greenland are still sold to the EU is they actually tan their skins and sell them ready for manufacturing.

    If the EU can be marked for colonialism, our government can be marked for neglect. We have not one tannery. There is no Nunavut fur auction. There are no direct links to our arts and crafts sector to ensure every scrap of sealskin we produce is made into value added products for us and our visitors to buy.

    It is truly sad when our government participates in an absolutely useless report for another government when all these other initiatives are lacking.

    • Posted by Our Views of International Relations Differ on

      Arrogance – noun, expecting that other people want to buy our product when it is no longer seen as socially acceptable or meets their needs, and they have a local supplier for what they do need – see example above.

      The EU is making rules that they think are important, very broadly supported by their people. The damage to Canadians is incidental. If the EU wishes to ban certain products, more power to them, it is their choice to make, and no one else’s. They are exerting control over their territory, not Canada. If Canadians are hurt, too bad, that is regrettable, but that is not colonialism in any reasonable understanding of the word. Canadians have no right to sell our products anywhere but….get ready for this….Canada. Anywhere else is a privilege to be negotiated. Canada could always try retaliation I guess, but there would be little purpose for an activity as marginal as the seal harvest.

      There is no exploitation of Canada of any type by the EU in this matter, none. Your analysis is disconnected from the reality of world trade.

      As for the second part – bang on. Nunavut skins are not as convenient to work with as Greenland’s, and, as you highlighted, are in many ways less desirable from both a quality and cost standpoint. It is quite natural and understandable why Europeans would want to buy what skins they do use from a brother European country such as Greenland, the costs and bureaucratic barriers are far less.

    • Posted by No Moniker on

      A rare miss for you, Putuguk. But I don’t think the definition you’ve offered fits the circumstances you are trying to describe. I think the term you are looking for is hegemony: “the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group”.
      It’s true there are measurable impacts of the EU decision on sealskin products, this doesn’t come from or indicate political or territorial control over Nunavut, only the power European decisions have on the economics of the global hinterlands.

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