US Marine Mammal Law Plays Havoc with Inuit Lives

US Marine Mammal Law Plays Havoc with Inuit Lives

By: Staff  Date: 01/9/2012 Category: | Animal Legislation | Wildlife Journal |

The US Marine Mammal Protection Act is up for Congressional renewal this year, and anada's Inuit natives would like an amendment to the law so they can sell seal products to US consumers.

As written, the act bans the import of all marine mammal products into this country. However, the ringed seals hunted by the Inuit are not endangered or threatened and the natives depend on sustainable use of wildlife resources to feed their families and build their economy.

The MMPA was passed by Congress in 1972 to ban all importing, hunting, capturing, or killing of marine mammals except for scientific research, public display, and the incidental harming of these animals in the course of commercial fishing. The act was amended in 1988 and 1994 to deal with conflicts between the tuna fishing fleet and the dolphins that swim in concert with yellowfin tuna in the Pacific Ocean but is otherwise unchanged.

The MMPA was passed by Congress amid two graphically illustrated animal rights campaigns: one depicting the bloody clubbing of baby harp seals, the other showing what was described as the slaughter of dolphins in the quest for yellowfin tuna. The law decimated the tuna industry in the Eastern Tropical Pacific and severely damaged the livelihood of native Canadians who depended on the sale of seal pelts.

The opening paragraph of the MMPA reads: "Congress finds that certain species and population stocks of marine mammals are or may be in danger of extinction or depletion as a result of man's activities," a description that did not and does not fit the harp seal or the hooded seal, the two species most hunted by northern people for meat and skins for personal use and for sale. As a result of the world-wide animal rights campaign against fur, the sale of pelts plummeted and the populations of seals exploded.

In 1987, Canada banned the hunting of white-coated harp seal pups and blue-backed hooded seal pups and limited hunts to inshore boats operated by local people, but the US maintained its ban on all seal products under the MMPA. The economy in the north was devastated; unemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse, and depression replaced self-reliance among the Inuit and other residents of Canada's far north and east coast communities.

"The land has always offered us animals to feed and clothe our families," said the Inuit narrator on Waiting at the Edge ..., a videotape produced by the Nunavit Sealing Committee and Department of Sustainable Development. "Seals have always been the most valuable resource for our people."

"We have felt very violated" by the MMPA, said Peter Kilabuk, Minister of Sustainable Development for Nunavit Territory. "All the hunters have gone through great pain since the sealskins were banned. What they have done is contribute to the poverty of our people."




Harp seals

Seal hunting is not limited to the Inuit. For generations, residents of Newfoundland, Labrador, and Prince Edward Island have depended on harp seals for income, and their economies have also been overwhelmed by the ban on seal pelts and products in the US.

The harp seal is by far the most populous of the six seal species indigenous to Canada. In the mid- 1960s, about 300,000 harp seals were killed each year. Following the animal rights blitz and the MMPA, the total dropped to fewer than 65,000 per year in the decade leading up to 1994. In 1994, the estimate was 4.8 million animals, about double that of 1981, and the numbers were increasing at about five percent per year. At that time, scientists estimated that up to 287,000 harp seals could be killed without affecting the population. By 2000, the National Marine Review Committee of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada, estimated the total at 5.2 million.




Sustainable use

In 1995, the Canadian government convened a forum on sustainable use of seals and the need to open new markets and produce new products to help poor families and villages out of the economic doldrums. Based on population numbers and an estimated consumption of fish by harp seals, the 1996 quota for seals was increased from 186,000 animals to 250,000. That year, 242,000 seals were killed and the hunt brought more than $11 million to coastal communities in Newfoundland and Labrador.

However, even though seals are the most abundant renewable, natural resource in Nunavit and are crucial to the survival of families and villages in Canada's east coast provinces, the MMPA forbids trade of any sort. With the ban in place, US tourists cannot buy clothing, accessories, or artifacts made from fur or fashioned from the skin or bones of marine mammals. The law is so strict that fur-trimmed puppets from an Inuit community were confiscated when they were sent to a US puppeteer for repair and Inuit representatives traveling to the NAIA conference in March had to leave their fur coats behind when they traveled to Oregon.

Noting the impact the MMPA has had on native people, World Wildlife Fund president Monte Hummel said in Waiting on the Edge ...: "I often wonder if people who boycott things like sealing, if they could see this real personal impact, whether they would still take the position they do." Hummel continued: "We have to extend a sense of fairness and human decency to people as well as animals."



AR vs seal hunts

Although Canada long ago banned the killing of white-coated pups, eliminated large boats from the hunt, beefed up its inspections, and improved compliance with humane practices, animal rights activists continue to oppose the hunt. The International Fund for Animal Welfare regularly demonstrates against and monitors the commercial seal hunt in the St. Lawrence Seaway. In December 1999, IFAW and the Sierra Club of Canada issued a joint statement that alleged the hunt is not sustainable in spite of government studies. In March IFAW claimed that the hunt puts too much pressure on seals in a year when thin ice has separated pups from their mothers and open water increases the potential that wounded or killed seals will sink and never be counted against the quota. Animal rights groups gloss over the fact that killing white-coated seal pups has been illegal in Canada for more than a decade. They also estimate high numbers of seals killed or wounded but not landed and counted in the quota, and generally indict the hunt with anti-fur rhetoric and distortions. One common claim is that hunters kill seals for their penises and leave the rest of the animal rotting on the ice. While this may have been a problem when the market for pelts and meat was all but nonexistent and the Asians were willing to pay $70-100 per unit, the current market in pelts, the drop of prices for penises to $25, the Canadian subsidy to develop the market for seal meat products, and the government emphasis on ethical hunting practices all favor full use of each animal.

Activists claim that the seal hunt only provides part-time employment and as such has a negligible impact on hunters' way of life. However, commercial licenses for seal hunting are only given to those already holding commercial fishing licenses. These hunters use the seal money to supplement declining income from fishing and to outfit their boats for summer fishing season.


What you can do

Participants to the NAIA conference in March drafted a resolution in favor of amendments to the MMPA that will allow resumed trade in products of non-endangered marine mammals. The resolution is on page 8 in this issue. Those who would like to bring the US back into compliance with world trade policies and trade treaties can ask their senators and representatives to work toward the goals of the resolution.


Inuit people wait at civilization's edge for the world to notice their plight

Waiting at the Edge: Protecting our Traditions; Building Our Future in Nunavut, a videotape produced by the Nunavut Sealing Committee and the Department of Sustainable Development, Government of Nunavut, Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada Five thousand or so years ago, the Inuit people brought their culture to the Canadian Arctic. For centuries they lived with the land, hunting for food in this harsh, treeless climate and developing traditions centered on families and communities. Those who were successful in the hunt shared with those in need. Adults not only revered their elders, they passed the wisdom of their people down to their children so that their culture might last through the ages. Europeans arrived on the scene in the late 1500s, but serious impact on Inuit civilization was delayed until the whalers arrived to hunt the leviathan in Hudson Bay and other waters early in the 18th Century. Whalers were followed by fur traders, missionaries, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Each group in turn brought tools, goods, and ideas that changed the way of life for the natives and set up a struggle to maintain their long-established way of life. Although the Inuit learned to hunt with guns, they still followed the same paths, used the old methods to lure animals to their sights, and continued to teach their children their time-honored ways.

Fur traders taught the Inuit that sealskins could be bartered for guns, tools, and other items. Thus the people of the Arctic became part of the world market in furs, a market that served them well by bringing economic advantages to their families and communities. With one foot firmly planted in the past while the other sought ground in the future, the Inuit labored to protect the old ways while they enjoyed the advantages of this new-found wealth.

Their remarkable efforts came to a standstill 30 years ago when animal rights activists campaigned world-wide against seal hunting and succeeded in restricting the market for pelts in Europe and ending the sale of all marine mammal products in the US. As a result, Inuit communities were devastated as their major source of income dwindled to almost nothing and depression, alcoholism, and welfare replaced self-sufficiency and tradition.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act is scheduled to be reauthorized by Congress. Waiting at the Edge was produced to generate support for amendments to the act that will allow resumption of trade in marine mammal products and reverse the impact of the ban on the Inuit.

The video tape opens with a panoramic shot of the Arctic landscape with an Inuit banging a ceremonial drum in the foreground. The voiceover talks about the hunting traditions, the importance of seals as food and fiber for the Arctic people, and the damage done to the Inuit culture by animal rights activism.

"Seal is our main food."

"The animal rights people have destroyed the way of life for the Inuit."

"Today I have to rely on welfare."

"Seals have always been the most valuable resource for our people."

"Our primary concern is that when people utilize wildlife, it is done on a sustainable basis," said WWF president Monte Hummel. "We also feel that the people who use wildlife are often those who have the biggest stake in making sure it is around in the long term, so often there's a good fit between hunting and conservation."

The quotes continue throughout the tape. Villagers, wildlife officials, academic researchers, the public information officer for the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, a vice president of the Canadian Fur Council, and WWF president Hummel make the point over and over that the Inuit way of life is sustainable and necessary to preserve their culture, that the politically-inspired trade ban embodied in the MMPA has harmed tens of thousands of people, and that the ringed seals hunted by the Inuit are not (and never have been) endangered.

Statements by the Inuit on Waiting on the Edge are made in Inuktitut, the native language, and interpreted in English. Identification of each speaker is printed on the screen in both Inuktitut and English. The tape is a rich tapestry of Arctic scenery, a father-son hunt for seal, village scenes, interspersed with interviews and accompanied by voiceovers. Several minutes of the 45 minute tape are devoted to the fur industry in Canada - a growing industry that cannot sell sealskin garments and accessories to the US.

Waiting on the Edge is a beautiful production about a people connected to the earth in a way that few city or suburban folks can imagine, let alone understand. Tested in high school classes, it is sure to help students and their families begin to question animal rights dogma and laws that supposedly help animals but actually harm people. For more information or to order the video, contact Allan Herzcovice, vice president, Fur Council of Canada, 1435 St. Alexandre, Suite 1270, Montreal, Quebec, H3A 2G4; Phone: (514) 844-1945; Fax: (514) 844-8593;


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All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |
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