« Every Christmas we’re inundated with images of smiling polar bears and Santa and his elves happily putting toys together in his workshop in the Arctic Circle. But these images distract from the truth about the Arctic: it’s an incredibly tough environment to actually live in, even more so when unnecessary trade barriers are put up by the uninformed and urbanised elite, » said Mark Oaten.
Seals are a classic example. Back in the 1970s, Greenpeace all but ended the international trade in sealskin – and as a result nearly annihilated the Inuit way of life. It has actually admitted it « failed very, very badly » when it comes to subsistence seal hunting carried out by indigenous peoples who « honour the animals, the land and the ocean ».
The European ban on seal products, born as a result of those grainy images of bloodied seal pups in Canada, has led to severe pressures on two separate communities: the Inuit seal hunters, whose existence is threatened because they cannot sell their sealskin, and coastal fishermen in the Baltic Sea where the growing seal population is dramatically reducing the catch.
So maybe, just maybe, it’s time to end this romantic and rose-tinted perspective: one held by urbanised Europeans who love the Disneyfied image of friendly animals playing on the ice but perhaps don’t really understand the issues involved.
To begin with, if any group truly views the seal as ‘holy’ it’s the Inuit, as it plays a significant role in their myths and everyday life. However, they understand that an animal can be highly regarded and respectfully killed and utilised at the same time. And it’s not just about their inability to make much-needed money through export; they can hardly grow vegetables as an alternative food supply in a location that’s buried under snow for ten months of the year.
Meanwhile, people in the Nordic countries have always lived close to the sea and been dependent on marine resources. And yet research on the seal population in the Baltic shows how the rapidly growing population is literally taking over the waters and making fishing increasingly less possible.
And the response among some European states to this bloated seal population? The hypocrisy of culls.
Managing wild animal populations isn’t a new issue. The International Union for Conservation of Nature is trying to change the local perception of possums in New Zealand from ‘annoying pest’ to economic provider (via hunting and tourism) and therefore necessary for the local community’s survival.
In addition, in 2012 (the most recent year where figures are available) there were almost one million coyote trapped across the United States. This conservation programme is important because as apex predators in territories where livestock are not enclosed, they present a huge challenge to farmers, ranchers and even pet owners.
This isn’t about the moral and ethical arguments of the fur trade; it’s actually about understanding that indigenous peoples who live close to nature will always know best how to manage animals and utilise them as a sustainable resource. Surely they should be the ultimate authority rather than lawmakers and consumers living in cities who’ve never even seen a seal in its natural habitat?
This is why the Nordic and Inuit locals have joined hands to try and change European perceptions, with a marketing campaign in the Nordic nations and beyond to communicate that buying seal products in the lead-up to Christmas is actually a sustainable activity that benefits small communities. Every part of the seal is used – its skin and its highly-nutritious meat – so it’s not as if any resource is wasted, either.
Yes, seals are cute. But let’s deal with them as the Inuit think best, not the urbanites.