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Inuits Defend Their Seal-Hunting Traditions

Animal activists killed the trade in pelts, devastating the aboriginal way of life.

March 23, 2003|Tom Cohen | Associated Press Writer

IQALUIT, Nunavut — Meeka Mike reaches into a hole in the ice of Frobisher Bay and tugs on the net, pulling out a fat ring seal. Minutes later, the ribs have been cut out to be cooked for dinner, and she munches strips of raw liver.

Seal hunting is part of the fabric of Inuit culture in extreme northern Canada, providing food and pelts for clothing as far back as the people known as Eskimos down south can remember.

It once was an economic mainstay before those Meeka labels as "radical" killed the seal trade decades ago.

"They have no understanding of what's involved with wildlife," the Inuk hunter and entrepreneur said of environmentalists and others, including Hollywood celebrities, who lobbied against the fur trade in the 1960s and '70s. "They don't have any consideration about what effect it has on the rest of the world."

Her people's experience shows that. The global campaign against harp and hooded seal hunting far to the south, on Canada's Atlantic coast, brought a ban on seal products in the United States and Europe.

Those protesting in the streets and abusing people wearing fur in North American and European capitals achieved their goal of stopping the clubbing of white-furred baby harp seals. They also killed demand for ring seals, a staple of the Inuit diet and economy.

In what seemed like an instant, the price for a ring seal pelt plunged from more than $20 to less than $5 in the early 1980s, leaving Inuit hunters unable to meet the cost of fuel and equipment, even with a government subsidy intended to offset the price drop.

"They were certainly affected more than the rest of Canada in that the seal industry was killed," said Douglas Pollock, executive vice chairman of the Fur Institute of Canada, an industry research group.

That left Inuit hunters in the Canadian Arctic unable to provide for their families, putting them on welfare. Social problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide increased.

The creation in 1999 of Nunavut, an Inuit-governed territory covering more than half the Northwest Territories, brought a campaign by the Inuit and the fur industry to undo the damage.

A video produced with territorial government help called "Waiting at the Edge" features Meeka, 36, and other Inuit hunters talking about the importance of seal hunting to their people.

"When the price of skins was good, it made the people live a happy life of being self-reliant to go out hunting every day," wildlife officer Sakiasie Sowdlosapik says in the video.

The destroyed market "hurts us very badly because there was no other way we could make money," causing hunters to lose the respect of their families, he continues. "We never used to depend on welfare. We always looked after ourselves."

Alan Herscovici of the Fur Council of Canada, an industry lobby group, said the biggest damage came from a 1972 U.S. ban on Canadian seal products and a subsequent European Union ban in the 1980s.

The bans reflected the post-1960s mindset that championed environmental causes, which received "sensationalist media coverage," he said.

Celebrities such as Brigitte Bardot protested against the seal hunt, and video images of baby seals getting clubbed to death generating outrage.

Now the Canadian fur industry, and the Inuit, want to get the U.S. ban repealed. Herscovici knows that it will be difficult.

"Politics is the only reason that ban remains in place today," he said, noting the unlikelihood of a U.S. politician taking on the anti-fur lobby over an industry with a minimal U.S. market.

Most major environmental groups now distinguish between seals culled purely for commercial reasons and the traditional subsistence hunting of aboriginal peoples like the Inuit.

"Where the hunting of animals can be established as humane, the population levels healthy and the level of harvest sustainable, aboriginal people should be able to sell furs to consumers who want to be assured that those conditions have been met," Elizabeth E. May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, wrote in a letter to the New York Times.

Animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals disagree. PETA continues to campaign against the fur industry, using stunts such as models wearing bikini bottoms and body paint skating on a frigid winter day with a banner reading: "We'd Rather Bare Skin Than Wear Skin."

Despite such opposition, the demand for seal and other fur is increasing, with fashion houses in Europe and North America promoting fur garments.

Canada's fur exports, including seal, fox, beaver and other species, have increased in the last decade from $95 million in 1992 to $223 million in 2001.

In her shop overlooking Frobisher Bay in Apex, just outside the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit, Rannva Erlingsdottir Simonsen said the price for raw seal pelts has doubled in the last year.

"It's all based on demand," she said, noting that she paid $20 for a raw pelt a year earlier but pays at least $40 now.

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