Tag Archives: seal hunting

Sustainable Blue Arctic (Seal) Hunting


As Inuit, we don’t have a choice as to whether we are part of the “Ice Economy” or the “Blue Economy”. We are the Blue Economy”, concluded Okalik Eegeesiak, former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) in her contribution to the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) magazine “The Circle” in April 2018. “As coastal people – the contribution continues –  Inuit have lived thousands of years an intimate connection with the ocean, developing a deep and unique knowledge, which came to shape and define culture, food, transportation, language, well-being, and livelihoods” [Eegeesiak, 2018]. In turn, and as a result of thousands of years of direct experience and being part of the Arctic Marine ecosystem, Inuit have developed a unique knowledge of the environment and wildlife inhabiting it, through which the ecosystem has been used and managed sustainably and responsibly for millennia [Eegesiak, 2018; ICC, 2021].

Despite the concept of “Blue Economy” having been recently introduced, namely at the “Rio+20” UN summit of 2012 [Eikeset et.al, 2018, Siddi, 2019], the notion has rapidly come to shape policies and programs of nation-states and organizations worldwide. Possibly, the term has now as many nuances as the policies endorsing it, in fact, a common definition has not been agreed upon [Eikeset et.al, 2018]. Nevertheless, the Centre for Blue Economy pinpoints “three related but distinct meanings” underlying the different existing definitions, namely “the overall contribution of the oceans to economies, the need to address the environmental and ecological sustainability of the oceans, and the ocean economy as a growth opportunity for both developed and developing countries” [Middlebury Institute of International Studies].

In May 2021, the European Union (EU), in line with its growing commitment and its growing international leading role in climate change policy, endorsed a more ambitious view for its “Blue Economy” and announced a shift from “blue growth” -endorsed in 2012- toward a “sustainable blue economy”. The new framework, which shapes and will shape the economy of the EU for the decades to come, links together two major EU policies, namely the European Green Deal, a set of policies initiatives with the overarching aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, and the Recovery Plan for Europe, the EU long term economic recovery strategy. In doing so, the novel approach stresses the need to “mitigate the impacts on oceans and coasts to build a resilient economic model based on innovation, a circular economy and a respectful attitude to the ocean” [European Commission: 2021].

This paper explores how key concepts now underlying the EU approach toward a Sustainable Blue economy have started entering the European legislation already four decades ago; concepts that were in fact learned by the representatives of the European institutions from the Greenlandic Government’ and Inuit associations’ narrative and arguments in support of Inuit seal hunting since the beginning of the seal- issue, namely in the 1980s. By analyzing one of the most controversial issues between Inuit and the EU, namely the development of the “EU Seal Regime”, this paper argues that the core of the “Inuit exception”,  formally elaborated in 2009, was grounded on the long-standing acknowledgment (since the 1980s) that Inuit hunt, as traditionally – or historically- conducted by Inuit, endorsed a more complex economic approach to sustainability that surpasses the notion of simple “species conservation” to embrace concepts now ascribable to resource efficiency, community resilience, sustainable and responsible food production, and a respectful attitude to the ocean. Arguably, the cruelty and inhumanity found in the killing methodology – at the core of the moral opposition upon which the Seal regime is grounded upon – is intrinsically linked to the scope(s) of the killing: commercial products derived from animals taken only for their fur to be used in luxury goods are considered ethically indefensible [Lowe, 2018] and impossible to control and redeem, and as such prohibited on moral grounds. The same commercial “luxury” products, derived from animals harvested for efficient use, first and foremost for “subsistence”- or food production-, which consequently eliminated almost any waste, while contributing to the overall economic, spiritual and cultural wellbeing of the communities involved, as put forward by the Government of Greenland and Inuit associations since the inception of the issue, “do  not  raise  the  same  public  moral  concerns  as  seal  hunts conducted primarily for commercial reasons”[European Commission, 2016] and in fact, were and are allowed on the commercial market. Therefore, this paper argues that a vision that links the “Inuit exception” of 2009 to a simple upright and formal compliance by the European Union to Indigenous Peoples Rights, not only fail in fully understanding the historical and complex processes that led to the adoption of the Seal regime and the Inuit exception contained within but also fail in acknowledging the fundamental and proactive theoretical contributions Inuit brought in outlining a different and more complex approach to sustainability.


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Nikolas Sellheim, The Seal Hunt: Cultures, Economies and Legal Regimes (Leiden: Brill Nijhoff, 2018)

Nikolas Sellheim, a postdoctoral researcher, has written a comprehensive monograph on the legal aspects of the deviating seal hunting regimes around the world. The book takes both a socio-historical and legal view on the marine mammal harvests, and does not shy away even from the most remote or obscure hunts, such as the Latin American or freshwater seal issues.

The Seal Hunt opens with an overview of the “troubled” relationship seals and humans continue to have. Main body of the book is divided into four big themes – being cultures and seal hunt, legal regimes, the EU and the seal hunt and ultimately the core theme of the book – the juxtaposition of international trade law, seals and moral questions.

Included in the reviews are 19 different national jurisdictions of seal hunt around the world. Most of them do not allow commercial hunts, exceptions being Canada, Norway and Namibia. Some countries such as Finland, Iceland and Sweden argue for a quota-based sealing on the “protection” of their fisheries and the impacts seals are having. Sellheim notes in his review of the changing national contexts that “seal hunt issue goes beyond national legislation and includes broad and diverging standards of rights and wrongs”. He also correctly positions seal hunt in the larger context of marine mammal harvests and the complexities they have in global governance. Author also in a clear and coherent manner describes and reviews the Indigenous harvests around the world, both past and present. For example Sellheim raises the Bering Sea sealing regimes “having set a precedence” with indigenous peoples and their rights. Most of the limitations have been removed for traditional harvests.

In the book a certain number of notable hunts emerge. Sellheim spends time on the Newfoundland hunt which has been the flashpoint of animal rights groups and “birgitte bardot” -style campaigns from Eastern Canada. Whilst the hunt goes forwards, the author points to one of the best managed natural resource regimes in place, that includes legally-binding animal welfare provisions, sealers’ training programmes and monitoring mechanisms in place to ensure a well-conducted harvest.

Another flashpoint, partly related to the Newfoundland sealing and its impacts, is the Inuit relationship and sealing issues, including a lengthy and much-needed review of the situation in Greenland. Sellheim discusses what he sees as an “inner European View on public morality”, as a part of a lengthy process of EU – Greenlandic and EU – seal relations, if you will. Ultimately Sellheim deducts that the “EU clash” with seal hunting is centred around notions of what is seen as “inherently inhumane”. The International trade law becomes basis for some of the legal victories EU has over the seal skin product bans and associated processes.

Icelanding sealing is reviewed for its historical context and contemporary legal issues. However, we do not hear much of the living sealers voices in the book. For the interested parties, the recent Nordic IPBES report, Vol 2, Geographical Cases contains oral histories of the Icelandic subsistence sealers from the past 20 years.

Sellheim wrote much of his research in Northern Europe, including Finland and the context of Baltic Sea, and it is reflected in the level of details he is able to muster for his comprehensive review. For example it is rare to see accounts of Arvid Genetz on the Russian Sámi or reflections of the Kola Peninsula and 1751 legal context of trade, harvest and community rights. Clearly the author has taken the issues and the legal context to heart.

Throughout the book Sellheim also discusses the unique freshwater seals and their harvests, namely the lakes Saimaa and Ladoga in North-eastern Europe, and the lake Baikal situation (also bringing forth the crucial question – how did the seals end up so far inland at lake Baikal).

Most of the freshwater seal survey material points to urgent ecological crisis, especially in the context of the lake Saimaa seal, nowadays fully protected. Slight errors emerge in the numbers of the Saimaa seals (Sellheim argues for 150 living individuals, whilst the rebounding numbers are today closer to 400) but the main arguments are clear. He even goes out to point to the oral histories of the Evenki and Buryat peoples around lake Baikal as an important source of information about the seal and its life histories.

Sellheim also discusses the historical and present “technical” management treaties, such as the Russian – Norwegian and Russian – Finnish seal treaties as major confidence-building measures resting on their technical facilities and allowing dialogue to happen in a non-politicized environment.

Sellheim is able to convey a review of the governance of sealing well. And perhaps even more importantly he is able to convey the older relationship humans and seals continue to have, in the present so ‘troubled’, but a lengthy history indeed. All in all, tour de force of legal regimes and sealing globally, this book can be recommended to all experts and interested parties on sealing questions world-wide. A major achievement.