Industry supported with $500,000 investment in new products
A plan to develop new seal meat products for sale, locally and internationally, is going ahead thanks to a roughly half-million dollar investment from the provincial and federal governments.
© — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram
Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea announced Friday the Atlantic Seal Development Association is undertaking a new pilot project to develop high-quality, value-added seal meat products with support from the governments of Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador.
The funding was announced Friday afternoon at the Natural Boutique on Water Street in St. John’s — in a room filled with coats, boots, mittens and other products made with sealskin.
Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea was present to tout the combined $498,000 expenditure in the seal meat project. The federal government is putting forward $292,000 of that total.
“Today I’m pleased to make an announcement that clearly demonstrates our support for Atlantic Canada’s sealing industry and the communities that it supports,” Shea said.
The money will support the Atlantic Seal Development Association’s work to develop a frozen seal meat product for the wholesale market, along with a vacuum-packed product for retail. The packaging will offer a longer shelf life for the now short-lived and entirely seasonal seal meat offerings.
According to Shannon Lewis, a director with the association, the government money will allow a new product to be brought to pre-commercial level, with pilot production of more than 20 tonnes in bulk packaging and a marketing campaign.
“Our market inquiries nationally and internationally, we feel very confident that this is going to be the future of the industry,” he said.
There is no exact date yet as to when the new products might be ready for store shelves.
Lewis said work on the products will enhance local processing and product development capabilities, and will be paired with a marketing campaign emphasizing the health benefits of Canadian seal products. The association will work with Memorial University’s Marine Institute on product development, he said.
Lewis said his organization has been in the seal business for at least 10 to 15 years. The group has a food production facility in Fleur de Lys that is Canadian Food Inspection Agency approved and is already producing products that have gone into the marketplace in Asia, although he would not comment on specific countries or buyers.
It may be that members of the Atlantic Seal Development Association or unnamed, individual industry partners have been involved in the seal business. However, the provincial registry of companies states the association itself was incorporated in 2011.
When asked about jobs at the Fleur de Lys plant, Lewis said the government funds would create 20 to 25 jobs developing the new products and producing for the pilot program.
“There’s been 500, 800 people employed in the past years with seal processing. Hopefully, we can get back to those original numbers,” he said.
Provincial Fisheries Minister Keith Hutchings noted the province’s roughly $205,000 contribution to the seal meat project.
“On behalf of the provincial government, I commend the Atlantic Seal Development Association for exploring ways to improve the product quality and shelf life of seal meat, and for exploring the viability of producing new fresh-frozen and precooked products,” he said.
Contacted prior to the announcement, Michelle Cliffe with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said it makes little difference exactly what is being offered public funding.
“It really is another example of them not facing the reality of what’s happening and throwing good money after bad,” she said of the seal industry.
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“Killing seals to make trinkets and luxury items that the average person can’t afford or doesn’t wear, in our view, is unethical. I don’t think that there is a future for this industry. So again, it’s just taking more taxpayer dollars and flushing it.”
As for the market for provincial seal products, Cliffe said 34 countries have now banned the trade in seal products.
She said an appeal to the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Nov. 25 ruling — upholding a European Union (EU) ban on Canadian and Norwegian seal products — would be more wasteful spending on the part of the Canadian government.
“This has been a pretty lengthy process, with both sides presenting really clear information. I don’t think anybody has been duped,” she said.
Shea didn’t use the word “duped,” but she did touch on the WTO matter, confirming the federal government would file an appeal.
“The WTO ban confirmed Canada’s long-standing position that the EU ban is discriminatory and treats Canadian seal products unfairly. However, the panel also took the view that such a ban can be justified due to some of the public’s concerns regarding seal harvesting,” she said.
“Canada remains steadfast in its position that the seal harvest is a humane, sustainable and well-regulated activity. Any views to the contrary are based on myths and misinformation, and the panel’s findings should be of concern to all WTO members.”
WTO and provincial support
Provincially, an appeal to the WTO ruling has political support. In response to a pro-industry statement by Hutchings in the House of Assembly Thursday, NDP and Liberal MHAs offered positive words, with Liberal MHA Randy Edmunds saying there was “no other choice” but to appeal, and NDP Leader Lorraine Michael offering more emphatic support of an appeal.
“Our sealing industry is not only important to us as a province, but to each fisherman who takes a significant income from this harvest each year,” said Edmunds.
“The decision by the World Trade Organization to uphold the 2010 seal ban was indeed disappointing.”
The MHA for Torngat Mountains, he is also a former commercial sealer and continues the practice as a subsistence hunter.
“I suggest that to truly save our industry we must also fight the public relations board to correct the EU public misconception of our sealing industry, and that will require a significant investment,” he added.
Michael said she’s optimistic about the potential for growth in the industry.
“The sealing industry is still an important aspect of rural Newfoundland and Labrador,” she said.
“I fully support the federal government’s appeal of the World Trade Organization’s decision based on moral grounds.”
The landed value for sealskins in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2013, as recorded by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was $2.7 million. The landed value of seal flippers was just more than $3,300.