Revive and promote the seal hunt, federal report recommends

When Paul McCartney campaigned against the seal hunt in 2006, it was unclear how reliant the Inuit and some coastal community economies were on the trade.

“We are concerned about the economics for the people, but we think there are other ways to do it,” McCartney said at the time.

Three years later, the European Union banned all seal products. The market for seal products was decimated, and with it came the rise of poverty and suicide within Inuit communities despite exemptions for their products, Steven Lonsdale of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association told the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans late last year.

Now, a new report from that committee acknowledges the harm done by the ban and recommends Ottawa must do more to revive the struggling industry in what it has branded a call to action.

Ottawa should do more to promote community and scientific research on seal populations, lobby, promote and market Canada’s seal industry and remove tax exemptions for non-governmental organizations who campaign against the seal industry, the report states.

There is little research on some species of seals, such as those on the Pacific coast. However, seal numbers are known to be healthy, with some testimonies at the committee pointing to high populations of seals harming fish stock on the east coast, though gaps in scientific research and data make the impact of seal populations on Canada’s fishing industry unclear, the report said.

The report follows decades of economic collapse suffered by the seal industry that once sustained Inuit and coastal communities. That collapse was spurred by animal rights activists, including McCartney, who lobbied to end the hunt, causing bans of seal products in the European Union.

A commercial market is also important for Inuit and coastal First Nation economies, given the need to pass traditional knowledge around seal harvesting and to create opportunities for moderate livelihoods in the north, the report said.

The report recommends removing tax exemptions for non-governmental organizations that hurt the seal industry and Inuit communities. These organizations do so by vilifying the industry, said Senator Fabian Manning, who chairs the committee that authored the report, at a press conference on Thursday.

“If they continue to vilify and lie about the seal industry in Canada, they should definitely not receive a tax benefit from Canada,” Manning added, questioning why Ottawa sits back on seals while it defends the beef, pork and chicken industries.

There are still some animal rights organizations that campaign against the seal harvest, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

“The Senate committee’s attempt to silence organizations that speak out against the cruel commercial seal slaughter should raise the alarm among all who value their freedom of expression,” PETA said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace, which had previously been active in campaigning against the seal hunt, apologized to the Inuit in 2014.

Lifting the ban on seal products in the European Union will be an “uphill battle,” Manning said. But Asian, domestic and U.S. markets might be able to fill the gap if stigmas against seal products are erased and the current U.S. ban is lifted.

“They love the products [we] have, but they can't buy them,” he said.

Around 90 per cent of Canada’s seal harvest occurs in Nunavut, said Senator Brian Francis at Thursday’s press conference.

Currently, only one seal processing plant remains in Canada, located in Newfoundland. The processing plant has enough capacity to handle a revived seal industry.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has set no limits to the number of seals harvesters can catch, according to senior director Todd Williams, who spoke at an earlier committee meeting.

Such limits aren’t needed because the number of seals caught for market is so low; since 2016, the harvest has not reached previous benchmarks, according to the report.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer