Like its fellow resident the polar bear, the little furry seal has been at the center of international disputes in recent weeks.

L to R: Harp seal, ringed seal, bearded seal

There are three species of seal in the Arctic: the harp seal, the ringed seal,and the bearded seal. The harp seal is white and fuzzy when it is a baby, and this is the one you see in anti-seal clubbing advertisements. However, hunting of the baby harp seal, called the whitecoat, was banned in 1987 by Canada. Hunters must wait for the whitecoat to lose its fuzzy fur in order to hunt it, which it does after about two weeks. The ringed seal lives in the Arctic year round, while the other two species migrate. The harp seal is the principle hunted species of seal.

The Seal Hunt

Seal hunting takes place in Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. Canada is by far the largest seal hunter, with the quota set at 229,000 in 2009. Greenland is the second largest, hunting about 90,000 a year, followed by Norway and Russia with 29,000 and 5,476 respectively. Inuit seal hunting accounts for about 3% of the total seal hunt.

Every year, the Canadian government authorizes the slaughter of seals, claiming that the hunt is entirely sustainable. The seal population has tripled since the 1960s and does pose a threat to fish stocks. 70% of the sealing takes place around Newfoundland, while 30% takes place off Prince Edward Island.

In Canada, sealing is the 5th most profitable fishing industry. In 2005, the seal hunt was worth $16.5 million, which the Canadian government says provided a “significant” source of income when “other fishing options are unavailable, or limited at best, in many remote, coastal communities.” Environmentalist groups claim that this figure is actually trivial, and that Canadians would find other sources of employment if forced.

Seal products that are imported are not just the pelts, but also meat and oil, which is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. The European Union accounts for 15 percent of Canadian seal imports, so a ban would deal a blow to the industry. Most of the country’s exports, however, go to Norway, which is not part of the European Union.

The Ban

On May 5, 2009, the European Union Parliament voted to ban the import of harp and hooded seal products, with a vote of 550 to 49. The ban is expected to go into effect in October 2009, in time for the 2010 seal hunt. The proposed resolution can be found here, on the EU Parliament’s website.

The resolution calls the ban “inherently inhumane,” stating that there is “clear evidence that seals killed in commercial seal hunts consistently suffer pain, distress and other forms of suffering.”

The resolution will also still allow Inuit communities to hunt seals,

since subsistence hunting involves personal or family consumption only and does not constitute intra-Community trade. The hunt is an integrated part of the culture and the identity of the members of the Inuit society, and as such is protected by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

Thus, personal use, cultural exchange, and small-scale trade would still be permitted.

At the same time, sealing will still be allowed in the European Union in order to protect fish stocks. Products from seals killed for such purposes will be allowed to be sold in Europe, an exemption Canadians and Inuits are calling hypocritical.

The United States has banned the import of seal products since 1972.


Canada, Denmark, and Norway, all of which are home to sealers, had varying reactions. Canada and Norway have threatened to lodge formal protests, while Denmark has not.

The Canadian government claims that the ban will destroy the economies of Inuit communities that depend on sealing. In Nunavat, 35,000 seals are killed every year, and 10,000 to 11,000 are sold on the open market for trade.

Trade Minister Stockwell Day said, “If the EU imposes a trade ban on seal products it must contain an exemption for any country, like Canada, that has strict guidelines in place for humane and sustainable sealing practices. If there is no such acceptable exemption, Canada will challenge the ban at the World Trade Organization.” But such a fight could take years, meaning the Inuit economy is likely to be negatively impacted in the meanwhile.

Canadian Inuit leader Mary Simon said, “Inuit are devastated at today’s vote.” In an official statement from the Inuit of Canada, she wrote that “the inclusion of an Inuit exemption or derogation will be meaningless in the protection of our interests as it will not shield us from the negative forces of a market-wide downturn.

The Inuit in Canada will support Canada’s efforts if it goes to the WTO.

In Norway, which also has a sizeable seal industry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre stated,

“An EU ban on trade in seal products could restrict our freedom to manage our own marine resources. Norwegian sealing takes a sustainable and modern approach to harvesting marine resources. We expect the EU to take due account of the scientific basis for Norwegian sealing. The ban is a serious challenge for us as a close partner of the EU.”

In Denmark, Christiav Rovsing, an MEP for the Conservative People’s Party, said, “There are some settlements that consist of between 10-20 people along the northern coast who depend on seal hunting…How can we expect them to survive economically if we rob them of their means to do so?’ Concerns about keeping Greenland economically viable are high in Denmark, which sends billions of dollars a year to the region in subsidies.

Denmark, however, was divided over the seal issue. Christel Schaldemose, a Danish Socialist Party MEP, voted in favor of the import ban, claiming that it sends “a clear message that animal rights were held in higher regard than market concerns in the EU.”

Threats from Nature

Seals are not just under threat from hunters. In the Arctic food chain, the ringed seal is polar bears’ prey of choice. Killer whales also hunt seals. In northern Scotland, where the ringed seal population has fallen up to 50% in some areas in the past decade, some scientists hold a rise in killer whale attacks responsible. Their hypothesis is that global warming has caused killer whales to migrate south, following fish stocks which have moved southward. However, hunting is also an important factor in the seals’ decline: 5,000 seals were killed last year to protect lucrative fish farms – a process that would still be allowed under the new EU ban.

Mercury contamination poses another threat to seals. Scientists have found that seals have higher levels of mercury than in the past, which might be an indirect effect of global warming as well. Warmer temperatures and shorter icy seasons lower pelagic reproductive levels, so seals are forced to eat more older fish, which have had a longer time to acquire mercury in their flesh. Eventually, this could mean higher mercury levels in animals higher up on the food chain, such as polar bears and humans.

News articles

Canada Battles the E.U. Over Baby Seals, Time Magazine

Nunavut, Inuit leaders vow to keep lobbying against EU seal ban, CBC News

Per B: EU forbud er kulturmord, Sermitsiaq (Greenlandic News, in Danish)


EU bans seal imports; Canada, Norway, and Inuit opposed

  1. Thankyou for answering my question as to whether the EU has banned seal imports especially from Canada. Last night on BBC News (May 28 2009)it told us that the Governor General of Canada has eaten a seal’s heart to show signs of ‘solidarity with the seal hunters’. I am writing a letter to her today about this. I have opposed the seal hunts since the 1960s and was pleased to read that the USA has banned seal imports since 1972!! Well done USA I shall continue to buy products made in the USA but am buying nothing made in Canada and havent done for about 5 years now. The only sanction that one individual person has is to withold their money from those they do not agree with. Canada could have so much more money coming in through eco-tourism than ever the seal pelts would bring in financially I think. I am sure I am not the only person who feels like this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.