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TEST: The Inuit and the Decline of Subsistence Seal Hunting in Greenland

Photo by Elkaim
Summer Sky. Upernavik City, northwest Greenland.

On the ice-covered island of Greenland, in remote regions inhospitable to agriculture, Inuit communities of the past endured and thrived by relying on every part of the seal. The meat provided protein and nutrients; the skins, warm clothing and boots; the blubber, oil for lamps. Bones and sinew became tools and thread.

Historically, subsistence hunters provided for their families while sharing the rewards of seal hunting with their communities. They participated in the global economy as early as the 18th century, bringing sealskins to colonial trading posts.

Photo by Phillipe Geslin
Ole Eliassen coming back from a seal hunt, Kullorsuaq, Upernavik District, northwest Greenland.

Today, as always, “seals are very important for Inuit,” says Hans Rosing, an Inuit hunter. But since the mid-20th century, Inuit communities across the Arctic have experienced rapid, dramatic changes to their way of life. Health and social problems have ensued, including increased rates of poverty, alcoholism, alcohol-related violence, and suicide.

Though seal hunting is still widely practiced and remains central to Inuit identity and culture, it is no longer a means of survival—or, even, a viable profession.

“Maybe there are still a few full-time seal hunters with wives who work in schools or hotels, where she makes the money,” says University of Versailles anthropologist Jean-Michel Huctin. But in Greenland, he says, most have moved on to fishing.

Rosing is one of them. Though he sells seal meat to nursing homes and municipal institutions, he also relies on income from fishing, Green-land’s main industry.

Across the Arctic, subsistence seal hunting has been declining for decades, facing the triple threat of modernization, politicization, and climate change.


Life changed significantly for Greenlanders after Danish colonial rule ended and the island became part of Denmark in 1953. Policies promoting cultural assimilation forced the Inuit, the majority population, from their seasonal settlements (which were formed according to migratory paths of the animals they hunted) into permanent ones—and, as a consequence, into town-based jobs. Modernization continued at a faster pace after Denmark granted Greenland self-governance in 1979 and the island took control of its internal affairs.

Today, about a quarter of Greenland’s 56,000 residents call the capital city, Nuuk, home. The rest live in coastal towns and small settlements, some with populations under 100 people. Most settlements are shrinking, as people leave for educational institutions or to be near hospitals. Nuuk, whose population almost doubled from 1979 to 2014, now has gourmet restaurants, hotels, a university, museums, and an international airport.

Knud Geisler Larsen, a teacher in the town of Upernavik, says that many residents “lived mainly by hunting and fishing when they lived in the villages” but now work wage-based jobs.

“It’s hard to be a hunter today without having access to some kind of salary or income,” says Søren Thue Thuesen, associate professor of Eskimology and Arctic studies at the University of Copenhagen.

That’s partly because hunting requires capital investment. Inuit hunters have incorporated modern technologies into their practice ever since they procured rifles at colonial trading posts. Today snowmobiles and boats with outboard motors are common in most regions, and hunters across the Arctic use satellite phones and GPS units to improve safety.

This equipment is expensive, and many can only continue hunting by working day jobs. They hunt now on weekends or holidays or whenever they have spare time, says Thuesen, so they can “fill their freezers for the winters.”

Younger generations, especially city dwellers, do that less often. Hunting territories near cities can get crowded. “Think also smart phones and the digital revolution,” says Huctin, pointing out that, like people everywhere, many are now drawn to activities that keep them indoors.

For Larsen—who hasn’t hunted in 15 years and eats mostly store-bought items—traditional foods, such as seal, whale skin, or reindeer, are considered a treat.

“We still crave for Greenlandic food when we have not had, for example, seal for a period,” he says. “Then it is always good to know someone who hunts.”


Animal protection and conservation groups launched wildly effective anti-sealing campaigns in the 1970s and 80s. Global governments responded to the campaigns. The US banned seal products in 1972. Europe followed suit a few years later, banning products made from seal pups. Global demand for sealskin plummeted, and the commercial market—which enabled Inuit hunters to be economically self-sufficient in the modern era—collapsed.

Although the activists had meant to target Canadian commercial sealers, Inuit communities—who hunt sustainably (and don’t hunt pups)—suffered grave cultural and economic injury.

From 1983 to 1985, the average income of a seal hunter in Resolute Bay, an Inuit hamlet in the Canadian Arctic, dropped from $54,000 to $1,000.

“Greenpeace apologized, but it was too late,” says Huctin.

Though seal hunting is still widely practiced and remains central to Inuit identity and culture, it is no longer a means of survival—or, even, a viable profession.

Other activist groups took up the mantle when new markets opened in the 2000s in countries such as Russia and China. The market’s revival was short-lived. Russia outlawed the baby harp seal hunt, and the EU extended its ban to all seal products, with an Inuit exemption. Reeling from historical damage, Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit sued the EU, to no avail.

The EU ban—and vocal Inuit opposition to it—persists. Even if it were to be overturned, it is doubtful that subsistence hunting could ever make a comeback.

Climate Change

Arctic seals need thick ice. They find food near it, and they use it as a platform on which to rest, give birth, and nurse their young.

Hunters also need the ice to be thick—to support the weight of their dogs or snowmobiles. Nowadays they regularly encounter ice that’s broken, too thin, or watery for hunting safely.

Last year was the second warmest on record in the Arctic. According to a 2017 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the ocean temperature continues to rise, and sea ice gets thinner every year.

Seasonal ice coverage is also an issue. Rosing says the sea used to freeze in October where he hunts. Now that happens in December or January. In some regions, the ice disappears by April, when it used to stay solid until June or July.

As the habitat and behavior of marine animals change as a result of climate change, so does hunters’ access to them. Hunters must travel farther offshore by boat in summer, spending more money on gas and more time on the hunt.

The Inuit are well-acquainted with climatic variations. Some speak of a time in the 1920s or 30s when the sea didn’t freeze at all. But disruptions to their routines come rapidly now, and more often. This presents challenges, but also opportunities for a culture that’s survived by being adaptive.

In southern parts of Greenland, where the climate supports agriculture, the growing season has lengthened. New crops, such as potatoes, are now grown locally. Some small-scale mining is taking place, and the prospect of a growing industry makes some hopeful that it will provide good jobs for younger generations.


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