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Seal hunters -- endangered species in Greenland

By Lars Toft Rasmussen / February 3, 1983



Godthaab, Greenland

Lately, Denmark's Queen Margrethe II has been wearing a sealskin coat made from Greenland seals. Meanwhile, her husband, Prince Henrik, has been opposing the killing of seal pups off the Canadian coast. (He is president of the Danish chapter of the World Wildlife Fund.)

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If you are confused, so are many Europeans.

Caught in the middle are 10,000 Greenland Eskimos, or Inuits, who claim their long tradition of hunting adult seals has been confused with the killing of seal pups off the coast of Newfoundland.

The Inuits have seen their standard of living decline as a result of a boycott of all sealskins in Europe.

Ironically, the Inuit never kill the so-called ''whitecoats,'' the offspring of the harp seal, which does not even breed in Greenland.

''We are victims of a misunderstanding which has a firm grip on Europeans,'' says the leader of the Inuit campaign, Greenland's Prime Minister Jonathan Motzfeldt.

The European market is so important for sealskins that a group of Inuit hunters and politicians is making a campaign tour of seven European cities this month to clear up the confusion. And they have on their side Queen Margrethe, whose country still owns Greenland. The Queen helps point out the distinction to the public by frequently donning her coat of Greenland sealskin.

Several years ago, environmentalists began protesting the use of the fluffy white fur of Canadian seal pups. Frequently dyed and used as a trim on purses or other items, the fur from the seal pups is often unknowingly accepted by shoppers. But the familiar gray coat of the adult seal is being boycotted by a European public that Greenlanders consider well-intentioned but misinformed.

''We don't expect sealskin prices to rise immediately as a result of this campaign. We do hope to leave behind in Europe a doubt which slowly but surely will result in a better understanding of native seal hunting.''

Mikael Gylling Nielsen, vice-president of Greenpeace in Denmark, has declared that it is not the aim of his organization to harm the traditional seal hunt by the Inuit.

He attributes the boycott of sealskins from Greenland to ''a regrettable combination of misinformation and ignorance.'' And he stresses that the species hunted by the Inuit are not endangered.

The endangered species, in fact, may be the Inuit hunter.

Hans Mathiassen, a hunter from the village of Qaersut in northwest Greenland, says his son may have to migrate south to work in the fishing industry if seal hunting does not become more profitable.

Now, it is often not worth the effort for his wife to prepare the skins of the seals he shoots. In spite of subsidies from Greenland's home-rule government , he sometimes gets as little as $8 for a skin.

The hunters in Greenland kill about 65,000 seals a year, which is about the same number as before the effects of the anti-sealskin campaign were first felt in the late 1960s. Like other families dependent on hunting, the Mathiassens need the meat of the seal, regardless of the skin's commercial value. ''We can't eat fish all the time,'' Mr. Mathiassen explains.

Some of the skins are used in the household for gloves, pants, and ''kamiit, '' a kind of boot. No modern material can substitute for sealskin clothing when the temperature drops to -30 degrees F.

The pro-sealskin campaign, the biggest public-relations effort ever launched by Greenland, comes none too soon. It includes television appearences and press conferences in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Paris, London, Brussels, The Hague, and Copenhagen and full-page ads in two prestigious European newspapers, Le Monde and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

About $80,000 has been set aside for the campaign. ''By our standards that's a lot of money,'' Premier Motzfeldt says.

The campaign follows in the wake of a hot debate in the European Community (EC) about a proposed ban on the import from Norway and Canada of skins from seal pups. The proposal specifically exempted skins from Greenland.

Shortly before Christmas the EC's Council of Ministers decided to leave any action to the individual national legislatures of the 10 EC nations.