The following article was first published by www.furs.com and is reproduced with the permission of the author.
By Lisa Marcinek for www.furs.com
SO MUCH FOR THE LAND OF THE FREE, HOME OF THE BRAVE. In this country, if people don’t like what you’re doing, they can – and often do – simply outlaw it. Since 1990, three well-known U.S. communities have attempted to pass laws impeding or prohibiting the sale of furs. So far, they have not been successful. Many people view freedom of fashion as freedom of expression, a First Amendment right. It seems we’re not yet willing to go into our fellow citizens’ closets and tell them what to wear.
Or are we? Animal activists were successful nearly 30 years ago in making sure U.S. consumers would be branded criminals if they attempted to wear one kind of fur. Through one of the most emotional propaganda campaigns of the last century, activists lobbied for and successfully saw that a federal law was passed banning the import of this fur. One misleading image of this animal can evoke pangs of guilt among even the most staunch fur fans.
And yet there is no rational reason for it. This fur is not endangered, has never been listed as threatened on endangered species treaties, and its populations are thriving at more than five million strong right here in North America. Due to the unopposed voice of the animal activist movement, it is a poster child for endangered species in the U.S., while Europeans and Canadians continue to enjoy this fur’s beauty and practical qualities.
These animals are killed humanely by people who live off the land and hold a reverence for it, the original environmentalists. Fur pelts are taken largely as a by-product of the meat, which is the primary source of nutrition to many people in the Arctic. All parts of the animal are used, in accordance with tradition and necessity. That is, with the exception of a few years when the market collapsed for the pelts, and they were left to rot on the ice once the meat was taken.
Those were sad years for Native North Americans, once known as Eskimos and now as Inuit. It seemed to them that the U.S. was not happy decimating its own Native American cultures; it was now turning its eye north of the border. Because as surely as if it had deliberately set out to do so, the anti-sealing campaign sent Inuit cultures into a downward spiral of suicide, depression, alcoholism and economic collapse. All in the name of protecting a sad-looking whitecoat baby seal that didn’t even reflect the true nature of sealing.
Today, Europeans – who abhor America’s treatment of its Native people – are increasingly buying seal fashions, and seal fur has even hit some of the major designer runways. But if you had your eye on that amazing Versace seal evening skirt last fall, and you lived in the U.S., you were out of luck. The 1972 U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act bans imports or sales of all marine mammal products, regardless of the conservation status of the species.
Typically, U.S. Customs impounds these products at the border and may assess fines to their bearers. If you were traveling in Italy and paid big bucks for that Versace, you’d have had a rude awakening when you came back home to not only find yourself in trouble with the law but your frock seized without compensation.
By now, maybe you are outraged that anyone could even suggest that U.S. consumers should be able to buy seal products. If you’re old enough, you’re beginning to recall all those 1970s images of baby whitecoat harp seals, floundering helplessly on the ice while having their heads split open with clubs, sexbomb Brigitte Bardot cuddling animals protectively against a background of blood-splashed, blindingly white ice floes. A nightmare if anyone ever conjured one up on film.
But here are the facts. It is illegal to kill whitecoats. Adult seals are killed with rifles. Many of those videos were staged and became so notorious, they created the term animal snuff films. Greenpeace, which originally promoted the sealing ban, has reversed its position. The World Wildlife Fund is trying to alert the public to the damage the seal ban continues to inflict on the people of the Arctic.
So why were the anti-sealing campaigns so successful, if their claims were false?
Because they went completely unchallenged. Slick, well-funded activist groups went after an easy target: Northern Inuit populations with little money, few communication skills and even less knowledge of what they were facing. They were blindsided. And the worldwide fur industry made a deliberate decision to sacrifice seal fur so that the rest of the trade wouldn’t be tainted by its bad p.r. Better to cut off a limb than the entire patient become infected, was the rationale. Of course, animal activists have since come for the rest of the fur trade, not to mention the meat, dairy and biomedical research industries. It was a failed strategy that left Inuit sealers blowing in the Arctic wind.
It’s a subject furriers still don’t want to talk about.
Inuit, on the other hand, have gained a voice. With the entrance into the Canadian federation in 1999 of Nunavut, the new Inuit-majority territory in Northeastern Canada, they have begun to tell the world their story and what sealing means to them.
“Inuit were confused and deeply hurt by the efforts of people to ban seal hunting, because seal hunting was as central to their life as shopping in a supermarket is to urban Canadians,” said Peter Kilabuk, Nunavut’s first minister of the Department of Sustainable Development, in a 1999 address to North American furriers.
The Inuit of Nunavut feel theirs is the “other side” of the sealing debate, one that hasn’t been told. They have survived for thousands of years in one of the world’s harshest natural environments. Seals have provided both an excellent food source and a source of protective garments and footwear in an environment where store-bought meats and other products are prohibitively expensive to import over the ice.
Even non-Inuits, who have depended on seal, know that sustainable use of the animal is crucial, and endangering it means endangering their own survival.
The effects of anti-sealing measures on these people should have been foreseeable. With a lack of other natural resources, they lost a major source of income and, in many cases, have been reduced to dependence on welfare. Clinical depression, high suicide rates and increased levels of substance abuse have been among the side effects. Health problems associated with the consumption of nutrient-poor processed foods have also afflicted many communities.
“We have been reclaiming our traditional values and skills,” said Theresie Tungilik of the Department of Sustainable Development, Government of Nunavut, in an address this May to the Alliance for America. “These are the same values and skills our forefathers lived by in order to live well, to have good self-esteem, dignity, happiness, self-determination and to be compassionate to all fellow humans.
“When the Marine Mammal Protection Act came into effect back in 1972,” Tungilik continued, “I wondered why they never bothered to come to us so they could understand whom we were and what we were all about … Perhaps the animal rights activists, along the U.S. government, who meant well, did not realize that by creating the MMPA, they took away a freedom from the Inuit in Canada … Would the U.S. have been more sympathetic knowing that [our climate] can freeze you in just 30 seconds without the use of fur? We have been patient for 29 years and hopefully the law makers of America, a country known for freedom, will understand this and help to lift or review the U.S. MMPA, knowing they have robbed Canadian Inuit of a livelihood.”
In Greenland, a territory of Denmark, seal hunters face similar challenges. Perhaps because of their connection to Europe, however, the Great Greenland Fur House has seen prices and demand for their product rise significantly in recent years.
The Alliance for America this year passed a resolution calling for the amendment of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, but no U.S. politician has yet had the courage to propose such an amendment for fear of animal activist pressures.
“This is an outrageous, arbitrary law,” says Alan Herscovici, executive director of the Fur Council of Canada, who is recognized as one of the world’s authorities on the anti-sealing movement. “No credible scientist claims seals are endangered. Seals can be worn in every other country except in the U.S., all because an influential political lobby has taken away the decision of U.S. consumers and scientists to determine if this product should be used. It’s nothing short of a crime against the Inuit people.”
The MMPA predates the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which implemented the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the world’s treaty protecting endangered species. CITES does not list the harp seal or ringed seal – the two primary seals hunted in North America and Greenland – as endangered.
According to annual studies by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada (DFOC), seal populations are prolific. The harp seal population is now estimated to be around 5.2 million, according to the DFOC’s Atlantic Seal Hunt 2001 Management Plan. The DFOC sets limits on how many seal can be hunted each year. In 2000, it set a Total Allowable Catch of 275,000 harp seals, but only 91,602 (33 percent) were taken. The DFOC requires permits for seal hunters, except aboriginal and non-aboriginal coastal residents who live north of 53 degrees latitude.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada has maintained an active seal research program for many years, aimed at better understanding population fluctuations and the factors that influence them, as well as the role of seals in marine ecosystems. About $11 million has been invested in seal research since the early 1980s.
The annual catch of harp seals in Greenland has increased in recent years to approximately 80,000 seals in 1999. Canada and Greenland hunt harp and hooded seals from the same populations. The Canadian and Greenland governments have been exchanging information on their respective hunts and have agreed to continue such exchanges with the intent of verifying harvest activities and strengthening conservation. For example, discussions are underway with Greenland scientists on a possible joint satellite tagging program to better define movements and stock boundaries.
The situation is nothing short of baffling. As a U.S. citizen, I would be proud to wear seal fur. Seal hunting is an environmentally sound, scientifically studied endeavor, and seals are plentiful. The animals are killed humanely by people who were the original North American environmentalists. The entire animal is used, and the fur is often a byproduct of the primary source of food in the Arctic. It is illegal to take those precious, whitecoat baby seals. Other countries enjoy seal fashions, which are beautiful and practical, in the knowledge that they are helping Inuit populations build better lives for themselves. But in the U.S., I’m not allowed to make this decision. Animal activists took my decision away from me. Only when public opinion begins to turn in support of seal will any U.S. politician have the nerve to propose an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and give me back a choice I shouldn’t have lost in the first place – let alone ease the suffering of North American Inuits.
1. Great Greenland Fur House, Box 519, 3920 Qaqortoq, Greenland.
2. Nunavut or Nunavut Resources, Wildlife & Economic Development, Iqaluit Nunavut X0A 0H0, phone 867.979.5015, fax 867.979.6791.
3. Atlantic Seal Hunt 2001 Management Plan, Department of Fisheries & Oceans, Canada.
5. Alan Herscovici, Fur Council of Canada.
8. Waiting at the Edge, a video story of the unique relationship between seals and the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic is available from the Nunavut Sealing Committee and Department of Sustainable Development, Government of Nunavut, P.O. Box 1870, Iqaluit, Nunavut X0A 0H0.