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Campaign threatens Nunavut economy

Activists oppose seal hunt again

Kerry McCluskey
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (Apr 01/02) - The Humane Society of Canada wants to put an end to the country's seal hunt. While its focus primarily seems to be large commercial harvests, the brush they use paints a picture of an unnecessary and cruel hunt.

Michael O'Sullivan heads up the society in Toronto. During a recent call for a Global Day of Action Against the Seal Hunt, O'Sullivan said the animal rights group he's headed up for the past eight years opposes Nunavut's seal hunt on several levels.

O'Sullivan said while the organization does not oppose Nunavummiut hunting seals for food, he does disagree with the manner in which seals are harvested using rifles and shotguns in open water.

"We would insist the method used not involve killing animals in the water with gunshot because the struck and loss ratio is too high," said O'Sullivan. "They need to do it in a way they can retrieve the animals."

O'Sullivan suggested seals be hunted on the sea ice, giving harvesters the opportunity to get as close as possible to the seals prior to firing.

He did not have a suggestion for summer hunting methods, however. "That's up to Inuit," he said.

Commercial opposition

On a commercial level, O'Sullivan said the society disagrees with work the Nunavut government is doing to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act. He said the society supports the existing ban on importing marine mammal products into the United States and called it the "proper thing."

The territorial government wants the ban lifted so Inuit artisans can sell seal skin products to the U.S. market -- including those in the burgeoning high-fashion industry.

O'Sullivan also opposes other commercial ventures in the territory, including the government's Fur Price Program and initiatives by the Natsiq Investment Corp. -- a joint venture between the Baffin region's Qikiqtaaluk Corp. and Nunavik's Makivik Corp.

Mentioning Natsiq Investment's now-defunct deal with China for 2,000 ring seals per month, as well as its ongoing seal oil dietary-supplement business, O'Sullivan said such enterprises, despite providing work for hunters and bolstering the land-based economy, do not improve living conditions in Nunavut.

"Killing seals is not going to improve anybody's life," he said.

In the case of the Fur Price Program, which uses government revenues to subsidize hunters until the skins go to auction, O'Sullivan said it create a false economy with tax dollars.

Nunavummiut respond

Carey Bonnell, the Department of Sustainable Development's director of fisheries and sealing, said the various seal-based enterprises underway in Nunavut are a unique byproduct of the traditional harvest.

"It's the sustainable use of seals in a land-based economy," said Bonnell.

Officials with land claims organization Nunavut Tunngavik declined to comment specifically on the campaign, although wildlife adviser Glenn Williams pointed out the seal hunt is important to Inuit socially, culturally and economically.

Seals provide a primary source of food and clothing and are the base of one aspect of the local economy.

"Seal hunting has been and still is an important

component of traditional community-based economy in Nunavut," said Williams.

Furthermore, the increase in harp seal populations noted by Inuit in Nunavut is raising concerns about the impact on the ring seal population and other marine mammals in the area.

Join the hunt

When asked if he'd ever participated in a seal hunt with Inuit or would consider doing so, O'Sullivan said he didn't need to experience a harvest to know it was cruel.

"I'm not interested. I've seen enough death and destruction in the animal world," he said. "Coming up and sitting in a boat and watching Inuit kill seals isn't going to give me a better understanding of what cruelty is."

The timing of the recently announced animal rights campaign is extremely unfortunate. It comes just one week after the Nunavut government announced a rebates fostered by record prices earned at 2001 auctions.

Sustainable Development Minister Olayuk Akesuk said last month that significant strides were made toward revitalizing the industry in Nunavut. This year, $20 rebates are being given to hunters for each skin they sold.

Selling for less than $20 in the mid-1990s, skins shot up to an average of $67 per pelt in 2001. That's an increase of 45 per cent over the price earned the year before.

If the society campaign takes off, it could damage strides made in revitalizing the sealskin market. Once a economy base for Inuit, the market collapsed during when European groups mounted a worldwide public campaign against the industry.