The market for exporting harp seal pelts harvested by sealers in Newfoundland and Labrador appears to have gotten a lot smaller after it was reported on Monday Russia has banned the importing of harp seal products.
According to a story published by The Canadian Press, the International Fund for Animal Welfare has obtained documents from Russia and the World Trade Organization showing the ban came into effect in August of this year.
Russia has represented a major market for Canadian seal exports. Its importance was boosted in 2009 after the European Union introduced its own trade ban.
In an interview with The Telegram earlier this year, Fur Institute of Canada sealing committee co-ordinator David Barry said Russia has always been the primary traditional market for seal pelts.
According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, almost 90 per cent of Canada’s harp seal exports were once destined for Russia.
Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International in Canada, said the ban shows the anti-sealing movement is gaining momentum.
Sealers’ association head surprised at ban
“It’s not surprising to me that Russia has gone down this road,” said Aldworth.
In 2009, Russia banned hunting harp seals less than a year old.
She said the federal government should seriously consider implementing a one-time buyout for the commercial sealing industry.
“I think the news about Russia is simply one more factor that supports the government doing exactly that,” said Aldworth, who added the federal government has done little to address economic issues in outport Newfoundland.
Only 38,000 seal were harvested in last spring’s east coast hunt. That figure represented less than 10 per cent of the total allowable catch. There has been a considerable decline in the number of seals caught in recent years, driven by low market demand and declining market value for pelts.
Frank Pinhorn, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association, said he was very surprised to hear news of the ban.
“If (Russia) hadn’t been buying for the last two or three years, I suppose all they’re doing is making a statement,” said Pinhorn.
A deal to sell seal products in China was announced by the federal government in January. Aldworth is skeptical as to whether it will bear fruit.
“We know nations that the Canadian government has tried to tell the public they’re developing markets for seal products in, like China, are not going to become dumping grounds for products of cruelty that the rest of the world is rejecting.”
Last year, NuTan Furs Inc. of Catalina and Rieber Carino Ltd. of Dildo attended trade shows in Russia and China as part of the Canadian Seal Marketing Group.
Pinhorn met with representatives from both companies last week and said he was told there has been a gradual improvement in the world market. He said the plant in Dildo expects to purchase pelts this year, something that has not happened in recent years due to excess stock.
The office of federal fisheries minister Keith Ashfield declined to comment on Russia’s ban, instead directing media inquires to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
In a statement e-mailed to The Telegram, International Trade Parliamentary Secretary Gerald Keddy said the federal government remains committed to defending the legitimate economic activities of Canadians.
“That includes Canada’s sealing industry and the coastal and northern communities that depend on (a) seal hunt that is sustainable, humane, and economically important," he said.
Provincial fisheries minister Darin King could not be reached for comment.
Speaking before a Senate committee last month conducting a study on the management of the grey seal population, Pinhorn said the federal government needs to do more to address the rise in the harp seal population.
There are widespread concerns that seals affect other fisheries by feeding on aquatic species. Aldworth disputes this is the case.
“They play an important role in keeping fish stocks healthy and abundant,” she said, noting there is evidence seals consume other predators of commercial fish stocks.
Pinhorn insists seals still need to be harvested, adding improvements have been made to educate sealers on the proper technique for humanely hunting them.
— With files from The Canadian Press