'Pelting out' of Cox's Cove mink farm latest sign of trouble in N.L. fur industry

An industry once hailed for its growth and success is now buckling under the weight of a collapsing marketplace, with the closure of a mink farm in Cox's Cove the latest blow for Newfoundland and Labrador's fur producers.

NuMink operates one of the largest mink farms in eastern Canada but will cease to exist by the end of this month.

Workers at the farm on Newfoundland's west coast are now "pelting out," a term used to describe the culling of breeding females and the outright closure of a farm.

"The business model no longer made sense for us," said NuMink manager Catherine Moores, who is also president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Fur Breeders Association.

Hopeful for rebound

But fur stalwarts like Moores do not believe the industry will disappear, and say a rebound is imminent as worldwide pelt production drops like a stone.

"We will reach a point soon where there's actually a shortage," said Moores. "So I think once we reach that point we're going to see prices begin to increase. It's unfortunate that across Canada we are after losing such a large percentage of our farmers."

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NuMink is owned by the Newfoundland seafood giant Barry Group, and it's just the latest operation to exit the fur industry amid one of the most painful global downturns to hit the sector.

The closure will impact 15 workers, but the company hopes to provide them employment in its growing seafood business.

"It has been our priority to make sure all of those people will be looked after within our fish plant," she explained.

Viking Furs a dominant player

Farmers hoping they had seen the end of the market collapse are slowly losing hope for a turnaround, and it's led to a series of closures and consolidations, with Viking Furs in Cavendish, Trinity Bay, emerging as the dominant player. And in order to remain viable, Viking is trying to diversify by raising beef cattle.

"As this operational reorganization occurs, the industry that's left could be very, very strong. Very robust," said Fisheries and Land Resources Minister Gerry Byrne. "There still will be a demand for fur."

Not long ago, there was a long list of mink and fox farmers in the province, supplying a booming market in places like China and Russia, and benefiting from soaring prices for their pelts.

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That strong market inspired a surge in fur production, led by nations such as Denmark, resulting in a glut and subsequent market crash.

"Unfortunately it has dragged on longer than anybody would have anticipated," Moores said.

Food production a priority

The Chinese market has softened because of a shift away from natural furs, and an increase in fur production in that Asian country.

The Russian market has also tanked because of a struggling economy, and soured trading relations over Russia's controversial annexation of Crimea.

The signs of a collapse are just about everywhere, with the fur industry continuing to be buffeted by critics who oppose the wearing of furs.

"There are no shortage of challenges right now that we're facing," said Moores.

And when it comes to support, Byrne admitted the provincial government has other priorities: specifically, food production.

"As a province (that) only grows one-tenth of what we consume, we know there will be a very ready, strong marketplace, and a public policy good, to creating our own food security. That's why I as minister am really targeting food production," Byrne said.

A fur snub from Queen Elizabeth II

The latest hit to the fur industry's reputation emerged last month, with word out of Buckingham Palace that Queen Elizabeth II is opting for fake fur in her outfits.

Several large cities in the United States, including San Francisco, have banned fur sales.

The historic North American Fur Auctions is now in creditor protection, with the Toronto-based auction house getting out of the business of selling furs.

And Nova Scotia, once the leading fur-producing province in the country, has had its industry decimated, plummeting from 125 to just 25 fur farms.

A competitive advantage

Farmers in Newfoundland and Labrador have not been hit quite so hard, largely because they enjoy a competitive advantage when it comes to food supplies for their operations.

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Byproducts from fish and poultry processing factories that would otherwise be sent to the landfill is recycled into nutritious feed stock for mink and other fur farms.

As a result, pelt production in the province has remained relatively stable.

"In all of Canada I'd have to think we're probably the only province that has been able to maintain our level of production," said Moores.

And Moores says there's an environmental argument to be made for supporting the fur industry because products are biodegradable and animal welfare standards have never been higher.

She said most clothing is now made of synthetics, which means each times they are washed, plastic particles are drained into the oceans, and then consumed by marine animals that might end up in the food chain.

"We have to do a better job of getting our message out there," she said.

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