In the late 1800s, foreign whaling vessels introduced the financial element to seal hunting in the Arctic. The Hudson’s Bay Company began to trade with Inuit shortly thereafter. The ringed seal was both a vital subsistence resource and a source of revenue for hunters. Sealing remained a major component of the informal economy in Nunavut, even in the 1960s when animal rights activists began to lobby against the sealskin trade. As a result of the pressure from activists, the United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. Nunavut sealskin is still denied access to US markets which account for approximately 85 per cent of all Canadian long fur exports.
In the 1980s, the European Parliament placed severe restrictions on the import of seal products, targeting the Newfoundland seal hunt. Although an Inuit exemption was declared, no distinction was made between Newfoundland and Nunavut sealskins by consumers. All sealskin sales came to a halt, and the markets for ringed sealskins from Nunavut disappeared. Sales dropped from 50,000 pelts in 1977 to less than 1,000 in 1988.
The loss of this market resulted in a significant decrease of cash for subsistence harvesting activities and a number of devastating social, economic and political problems.
Although anti-fur groups are still active, the demand for sealskins returned in the mid-1990s. A declining European market has been partially offset by a strong Chinese and Russian demand for Nunavut sealskins. The domestic market demand for sealskin garments has grown dramatically since the creation of Nunavut as a Canadian territory. This demand is being addressed by a small group of businesses as well as individual designer/producers working out of their homes.
While the International Union on the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest and most respected conservation organization, passed a resolution at its 2004 Congress urging its member governments not to impose any new trade restrictions on seal products coming from abundant populations, proposed bans continue to surface.
European animal rights groups, supported by the U.S. Humane Society and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, continue efforts to ban import of all seal products into European Union countries.
Animal-rights organizations state they support for aboriginal fur harvesting, but these groups are against any commercial use.
Nunavut seeks its place in world trade. Inuit await the opportunity to share their resources and achievements to achieve a brighter future. The values of natural conservation and spirit of trade can go hand in hand. Unfortunately, regulations lacking a scientific basis for sustainable use remain an obstacle.