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Down on seal fur

Malcolm Brabant, Ilulissat, Greenland
April 13, 2015

Greenland and its colonial big brother Denmark are appealing to the European Union to lift the ban on commercial seal hunting. Greenlanders fear the end of a way of life. Malcolm Brabant reports from Ilulissat.

A boat of seal hunters sails along Greenland's icy coast
Image: DW/M. Brabant

The centuries old Greenlandic profession of seal hunting is heading towards extinction, campaigners claim.

"To a large extent it's the last call for a lot of the hunters," says Rasmus Holm of Inuit Sila, the Greenlandic Hunters and Fishermen's Association. "If the current crisis continues, they won't have any alternative but claiming social security."

Greenland and Denmark are appealing to the European Union to lift the ban on commercial seal hunting, which was imposed in 2009, after legislators reacted to images of Canadian baby seals being clubbed to death.

The world's biggest island is desperate to find a market for seal fur to help sustain the subsistence economy.

The number of full-time seal hunters has been fallingImage: DW/M. Brabant

Greenlanders insist their methods of dispatching the marine mammals are humane. Most hunters use rifles. And according to their figures, Greenland has more than 12 million seals. The hunters are only "harvesting" 150,000 a year.

The latest survey says the number of full-time hunters has declined by a third over the past nine years.

"They are being pressurized on a lot of levels: climate change, globalization and modernity," says Holm.

Sustainable hunting

Nowhere is there more substantial proof of climate change than the giant Jakobshavn glacier above the picturesque fishing village of Ilulissat in western Greenland, opposite Canada.

The glacier is being eroded underneath by sea temperatures that have risen by one to two degrees Celsius over the past two decades. This icescape is moving at the rate of 40 meters a day (44 yards), or 15 kilometers a year, "calving" icebergs more than 100 meters tall that float into the fjord and out into the North Atlantic.

Climate change experts say the glacier is producing a record number of icebergs, which demonstrates that Greenland is melting at a faster rate than ever.

While this has potentially serious consequences for low-lying land masses around the globe, it has a more immediate impact on Inuits, who traditionally have taken their dog sleds onto the ice to hunt for seals.

A shot seal bleeds into the water as a hunter tries to pull it on board
Most hunters use rifles to kill sealsImage: Inuit Sila

The thinner ice now makes hunting far more perilous. Not only does it restrict the ability of the Greenlanders to hunt the seals for their pelts, but it limits their ability to sustain themselves.

It's regarded as a matter of pride for Greenlanders to be able to hunt for the table.

Also, marine mammals are often the only source of vitamin C. Many typical Greenlandic communities are locked down for four months of the year by sea ice, and shipments of food can't get through.

"Your only source of food is what you can catch and hunt yourself," says Kai Andersen, Greenland's deputy foreign minister. "This is a resource that we have used for thousands of years to make our livelihoods from, and we're not allowed to export it."

The EU ban bewilders Martin Lidegaard, foreign minister of Denmark, of which Greenland is a territory.

"The seals up here have lived a very good life," he told DW. "They are hunted in a very sustainable way. The meat is eaten by the Greenlanders and the fur is then sold. That's as sustainable as it gets. If we don't get exports to the EU up running again, then there will be no business for the hunters in Greenland. I don't get it. I don't see any fur being more sustainable than that which comes from seals."

Disapproval of seal fur

Late last month, the Greenlanders had a chance to press their case with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was in Ilulissat on a fact-finding mission in advance of chairing a UN climate change conference in Paris this summer.

Fabius leant a sympathetic ear but was doubtful whether he could influence any change in Brussels.

"Public opinion in our countries disapproves of seal fur," said Fabius. "We must try to find a solution, if it exists, to help these people to live. But it's not easy, not easy at all."

A man skins a seal on buolders next to the water
Traditionally Inuit use every bit of the seals they catch and leave nothing to go to wasteImage: Inuit Sila

Hans Stielstra, a key European negotiator and head of International Environmental Issues at the European Commission, insists that traditional Greenlanders are able to export their skins to the EU under a special exemption.

But he acknowledges that the ban has been damaging.

"Their [Greenlanders'] problem is that the general ban has destroyed the market in the EU. It's not so much that we are limiting the possibilities for the Inuit in Greenland to export seal products to the EU - because they can - but the overall ban will remain in place unless the [European] Council and the parliament decide otherwise."

Unless the seal issue is resolved in the Inuits favor, a traditional way of life may die out. It will also exacerbate Greenland's short-term economic problems.

The country is sitting on a potential fortune of minerals, including iron ore, uranium and rare earths used in electronics. Climate change should make extraction and transportation easier. But exploiting these resources has stalled. Greenland's hopes of self sufficiency are on ice along with dreams of independence from Denmark.

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