Canadian seal hunts may disappear as international market for pelts shrinks

A young harp seal in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew VaughanThe decades-long war over Canada's East Coast seal hunt may be winding down as opponents' international lobbying shrinks the market for pelts.

"Right now we're in a situation where we don't have very many markets," Jim Winter, president of the Canadian Sealers Association, told CTV News.

The sealing industry took a heavy blow when the European Union imposed a ban on commercial seal products in 2010 and last year Russia, a major market, joined the boycott. As sealers prepare for the spring hunt off Newfoundland and Labrador, Winter thinks it may not be worth their while.

"It's a question of economics," he said Monday. "If there is no market, no buyers, there's not much point in taking the seals... Everybody's looking at it and saying, 'Well I'm not going to go if I can't make money' because that's what it boils down to."

Russia's decision to join the EU ban may be the tipping point. CTV reports federal Fisheries Department figures show Russia took up to 90 per cent of harp seal pelts in recent years.

Sealing has been promoted as an important source of cash for East Coast fishermen still coping with the decline of the cod fishery and other blows to their livelihood. Proponents also argue that failing to manage the seal population threatens the revival of cod stocks. But opponents dismiss those claims and continue to criticize the hunt as inhumane.

CBC reported Darin King, Newfoundland and Labrador's fisheries minister, was considering buying seal pelts and stockpiling them for future sale when markets improve.

Humane Society International/Canada condemned the idea in a news release Monday.

"I suspect there are few sealers who would want the sealing industry to be known as a glorified welfare program," society executive director Rebecca Aldworth said in a statement. "But that is exactly what it has become."

The humane society said if government paid a price that covered sealers' costs, a stockpiling program would cost millions of dollars. The federal government paid $30 million in subsidies to prop up the industry in the 1980s and '90s, the group said.

"More subsidies won't save the sealing industry — they will just continue to artificially sustain a sham industry," the society said in its release.

"Instead of pouring more public money into the seal slaughter, the Canadian government should make a one-time investment in a fair sealing industry buyout."

(The Canadian Press photo)