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The EU seal ban: Fine-tuning the Indigenous exemption

June 12, 2019


Katie Hearther


The European Union’s 2009 ban on importing seal products gave little consideration to the reliance of Arctic Indigenous peoples, particularly the Inuit, on marine mammal hunts (Hennig and Caddell 2017). The ban does include an exemption for hunts carried out by Indigenous peoples whose communities traditionally pursued seals, but the market collapsed after the ban became law and directly decreased the income of Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit (Fakhri 2017). The sustainable hunting of marine mammals, especially seals, has been an integral part of Indigenous traditions and cultural identity for millennia (Hennig and Caddell 2017). In modern times, demand for seal products gave Indigenous people a platform with which to participate in a global market (Depledge 2015b). The 2009 ban eliminated this opportunity, and as a result was contested with several lawsuits before the EU and World Trade Organization (WTO) courts (Fakhri 2017). The ban was upheld by the courts, and the Canadian Inuit lost their access to the market when the commercial Atlantic seal fishery was discontinued (Herwig 2016). This paper discusses steps that may lead to a revision of the policy banning seal products from EU markets, specifically the formation of two programs: one for communicating the social and scientific reality of Indigenous seal hunts, and another for establishing clear administrative policy that would allow the Inuit to take advantage of the exemption included in the legislation. Such programs would ease the financial burden of Inuit hunters attempting to comply with EU rules while also increasing direct communication between Arctic Indigenous peoples and those making decisions with global ramifications.


The European Union is composed of 28 member states and oversees the largest single market in the world with 500 million consumers and 16% of global imports and exports (Depledge 2015a). Three of the EU member states (Denmark, Finland, and Sweden) are also members of the Arctic Council (AC), and six other member states have been granted official observer status for AC affairs (Fakhri 2017). The 2009 ban has been a point of contention between the AC and the EU, which was denied member status until 2014, largely due to Canada’s opposition to the ban. The EU ban was the result of large anti-sealing campaigns and appeals to the general public about the morality of seal hunting, which were led by environmental groups such as Greenpeace (Fakhri 2017). These campaigns largely used imagery from commercial hunts on harp seal pups to garner an emotional response from the public, even though such practices had previously been banned by the EU in 1983 (Fakhri 2017). The resulting 2009 ban included an exemption for Indigenous hunters that required them to be from a community that traditionally hunted seals (Fakhri 2017). Other parts of the seal must be used within communities according to their traditions, and the hunts themselves must be conducted to contribute to the subsistence of community. These extraordinarily strict guidelines and the lack of administrative structure to clarify and enforce the exemption in the ban resulted in Inuit groups pursuing lawsuits in the EU Court of Justice (Hennig and Caddell 2017). The Inuit groups argued that the EU market contributed 30% of global seal trade, and the ban would cause surplus seal products to flood other markets and decrease the global price (Fakhri 2017). Inuit hunters would also have to bear a financial burden to prove their hunt met the EU criteria. Such practices would increase the production cost of products whose prices would soon plummet (Herwig 2016). Additionally, environmental organizations and celebrities criticized seal hunters as barbaric and cruel, which ensured that any seal products that did make it to the EU would be subject to damaging rhetoric. There is much work to be done to reconcile the damage the 2009 ban did to Inuit communities, but this paper will outline small steps that can be taken to start a constructive dialogue that may result in the EU changing their policy regarding seal products.

Policy Recommendations

The European Union should, in conjunction with Arctic Indigenous people via facilitation by the Arctic Council, establish two projects: one to inform the general public of the social and scientific facts of seal hunting, and one that aims to create a clear administrative process that allows Arctic Indigenous people to capitalize on the ban exemption. Realistically, these projects alone cannot cause a rebound in the seal market, but it is likely they could create a precedent for including Indigenous people in decisions rather than having external bodies make decisions for them. The current form of the seal ban is deeply out of touch with the Arctic people and their way of life, and these projects would offer the first step to remedying the situation and possibly even lead to a large policy revision in the future.

The first project would employ and fund Inuit ambassadors, Arctic seal scientists, and Arctic state politicians to travel to EU meetings, as well as non-Arctic member states, in an effort to lessen the knowledge gap between Arctic people and non-Arctic countries. The Inuit representatives would disseminate information about their hunting traditions, practices, and values. The scientists could provide information on seal population assessments, and the politicians could discuss the changing priorities of Arctic states. Such a project would ensure Indigenous groups got to advocate for their right to their culture and directly create a dialogue with those who otherwise may have not known about their existence. This would coincide well with Inuit Qaujimaningit (IQ), which loosely translated to “the knowledge of the Inuit”, because this knowledge system is grounded in observational, experiential learning. It is passed on through interactions with others, and while their audience may not be able to experience being on a hunt, their stories and words could help them feel as if they were there.

The second project would consist of Inuit and other Indigenous representatives that would work with EU policymakers to draft and establish realistic administrative procedures that would allow Arctic people to capitalize on the exemption included in the 2009 ban. It is essential that Indigenous people be included in these discussions because they are the ones that must be able to understand and follow any established rules. Procedures for how to enforce which communities “traditionally” hunted seals, what methods are humane, and who the kill should be reported to must be established. The exemption of the 2009 ban has so far stirred up many lawsuits and confusion, and it would be the goal of this project to bring together Indigenous people and policymakers to draft a procedure that is attainable with limited infrastructure and communications (as is common in Arctic communities). Such administrative procedures would provide clear guidelines to Indigenous hunters and make the exemption enforceable.

Barriers to Implementation

Animal activist groups will likely continue their anti-sealing rhetoric and convenient omission of any discussion regarding Arctic Indigenous hunters. Also, the fact remains that seals are a cute, effective poster animal that are almost guaranteed to pull on the heartstrings of the public. Discussions surrounding seal hunting will always cause difficult imagery to surface, but the fact remains that it is an integral part of Inuit culture that they are entitled to. As always, money is another difficult topic. The Inuit and other Indigenous communities do not possess the funds to support their own travel, so money would have to come from willing governments, donors, and non-governmental organizations. This would require an active desire by these groups to participate, which may require offering incentives such as a permanent observer status on the Arctic Council. There is also the difficult task of choosing which members of the community would travel internationally. Unlike the Arctic Council, which does not have a permanent staff, it would be beneficial for the projects discusses in this paper to have continuous, compensated participation so that any Indigenous ambassadors are not forgoing feeding their families.


The first steps to implementing the projects proposed in this paper would be to consult the seal-hunting communities for their suggestions and recommendations. After a more concrete plan is established, a formal proposal could be brought before the EU and official planning could begin. Sealing has been a proud part of Indigenous Arctic culture for millennia (Hennig and Caddell 2017). The Arctic is also one of the poorest regions in the world, with few economic opportunities for its residents (Fakhri 2017). The ultimate goal of the projects discussed in this paper is to create dialogue that may eventually lead to the reestablishment of a sustainable commercial seal hunt that would allow Indigenous people to express self-determination and be connected to a global market while remaining true to their ideals. Outright bans generally lack careful consideration, and this one was enacted solely to appease the public’s ill-conceived notion of seal hunters. The activism of environmental groups is far louder and has much more funding than the isolated Indigenous people of the Arctic. The cost of living in the Arctic is astronomically high and culture loss has had a massive impact on Indigenous people, so every avenue should be taken to allow them to continue their traditional practices and not ban them from making a living off of it. Arctic peoples should enjoy economic opportunity and not be restricted by governments hundreds of miles away that barely consider their existence.

Works Cited

Depledge D (2015a) “The EU and the Arctic Council” (European Council on Foreign Affairs, 20 April 2015)< 3005> accessed 18 March 2019.

Depledge D (2015b) “The European Union in the Arctic” < blog/2015/06/24/european-union-arctic> accessed 18 March 2019.

Fakhri M (2017) “Gauging US and EU seal regimes in the Arctic against Inuit sovereignty” In Liu N, Kirk EA, Henriksen T (eds) The European Union and the Arctic.

Hennig M, Caddell R (2017) “On thin ice? Arctic Indigenous communities, the European Union and the sustainable use of marine mammals”. In Liu N, Kirk EA, Henriksen T (eds) The European Union and the Arctic.

Herwig A (2016) “Too much Zeal on Seals? Animal Welfare, Public Morals and Consumer Ethics at the Bar of the WTO”. World Trade Review 15(1):109-137.


This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.