Sealskins are one of Greenland's few exports other than fish and shrimp. In 2005, sealskin and sealskin products worth 32.6 million kroner were exported, accounting for 1.3% of total exports. (Shrimp is the largest export item, accounting for more than half of the total.)
Sealing in Greenland combines both subsistence and commercial components. Seals are hunted primarily for food, but the production of handicrafts, clothes and traditional artefacts, as well as the sale of sealskins, are important by-products. No suckling pups are taken.
The annual harvest can vary significantly from year to year. Usually this is the result of severe fluctuations in ice and weather conditions, but changes in localised abundance also play a role.
The seals most commonly harvested by Inuit are harp and ringed, with a combined take of 149,000 in 2004 (see Table). Also taken in that year were 5,800 hooded seals. The northwest Atlantic harp seal population is the same population harvested by Canadians. The average annual catch of harp seals in Greenland between 1996 and 2004 was 79,000, compared with 258,000 in Canada.
Since a 1983 EEC Directive banning imports of the skins of seal pups led to a global collapse in prices and demand for seal products, the Home Rule government introduced subsidies for professional sealers in order to ensure a reasonable income. In 2006, it paid out 22.5 million kroner to help fund equipment.
A small European market for the skins of adult animals has developed over the last 20 years. A number of these skins are processed in Denmark and exported to other EU countries.
Over the last few years, Greenland has been able to optimize the trade through the education of traders and a modernization of its Great Greenland A/S tannery, allowing a significant reduction in the subsidies, from 6 million euros in 1999 to 3 million euros in 2005.
Only about half the total harvest is sold to the tannery each year, with the rest being used for private purposes, reflecting the combined susbsistence and commercial aspects of sealing in Greenland.
Local knowledge accumulated over generations about tanning is now being used in the processing of both Greenlandic and Canadian sealskins, enabling Greenland's Inuit to profit from the commercial Canadian seal hunt. However, in 2005 the commercial trade in Greenland reached almost 119,000 sealskins, making it unnecessary to import sealskins from Canada in 2006.