Buyer beware

by Kerry McCluskey
Northern News Services

NNSL (Jan 26/98) - Auntie Betty got a $20,000 fine and she's doing hard time at the state penitentiary.

And all because she tried to cross the American border with a narwhal carving she bought on a visit to the Northwest Territories.

Auntie Betty does not exist but the situation is real and becomes particularly important when the NWT's growing tourism industry is taken into account.

Specifically, more and more people from the United States come to the NWT and many purchase objects of art.

But, buyer beware, because if the artwork is produced or contains even the smallest amount of a marine mammal, polar bears excluded, it will be seized by customs officials under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and never given back.

For example, if a narwhal carving is seized, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services step in and, for a criminal penalty, hand down a $20,000 fine for each violation and/or a jail term of one year. A civil penalty nets a fine of $10,000 for each violation.

The act prohibits all or any piece of a seal, any kind of whale including narwhal ivory and walrus, to name a few, from entering the States.

Tour operator Halina Knapp wonders whose responsibility it is to find out if a work of art can leave the NWT and be imported into other countries.

"Was the artist made aware by his teachers at Arctic College that it is illegal to import marine mammal products into the USA from Canada so that in turn he could give this information to a potential American buyer," asks Knapp in a letter to xxxNews/North.

"I'm concerned because the client may get into trouble...knowing the lack of money most artists have, they wouldn't be able to refund the money or replace the work. The big question is whose responsibility is it. I have no idea," says Knapp who brings a number of American hunters into the NWT every year.

Iqaluit artist Ruben Anton Komangapik often works with narwhal and walrus ivory and whale bone in his carvings. He says he does his part to inform his customers about what they are buying.

"I just tell them that there's a place in the same building where my shop is at where they can get a permit or at the wildlife offices," says Komangapik referring to the permits required for exportation into countries that allow marine mammal products.

"Usually I just sell my art to the person and it's hard to distinguish an American from a Canadian. I tell everybody except the people I know from here or from the communities around here."

While his warnings apply to some buyers, they still leave our neighbors to the south out in the cold.

Scott Peltier is a wildlife inspector with U.S. Fish and Wildlife in North Dakota, USA. He says the onus is on the buyer to inform themselves about import regulations.

He says "individuals acquiring any type of wildlife from any foreign country have to find out the rules and regulations of that country and the country they're going in to."