As the annual East Coast seal hunt draws to a close, federal officials have confirmed this season was one of the worst since the early 1990s, when the industry struggled to recover from a European ban on the importation of white pelts from young harp seals.
The total number of harp seals killed in the 2011 commercial harvest was about 38,000 — less than 10 per cent of the allowable catch, set at 400,000.
The industry’s latest slump is the result of a shrinking world market and poor ice conditions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the north coast of Newfoundland, where harp seal mothers need large ice pans to give birth to their young.
Last year, the European Union’s 27 member states banned the importation of most seal products, a move that has depressed pelt prices to between $20 and $30 — barely enough for seal hunters to cover the cost of fuel and insurance for their small boats.
The use of large offshore boats was banned in 1987, the same year the federal government banned the killing of whitecoats. The United States banned importing seal products in 1972.
Last week, the Canadian government said it will move ahead with its bid to challenge the latest European ban through the World Trade Organization (WTO), even though Ottawa is also trying to secure a free trade deal with the EU.
The European Parliament adopted a resolution last week suggesting the WTO challenge should be dropped before the free trade talks move ahead. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he hopes to complete negotiations by 2012.
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Here in Canada, the Green Party issued a statement Tuesday suggesting the federal government save money by cutting subsidies to the sealing industry.
“Instead of slashing valuable programs, it’s time to stop throwing taxpayers dollars at the commercial seal hunt. For less money we now spend propping up this dying industry, we could buy out sealing licenses and develop sustainable economic alternatives for coastal communities, like seal watching,“ said Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.
Meanwhile, animal welfare groups are pressing ahead with media campaigns aimed at stopping the commercial hunt, which has been in operation since the mid-1700s.
On Tuesday, the Canadian wing of Humane Society International held a news conference in Toronto to release graphic video footage that the group shot during this season’s hunt.
The group says the images reveal flagrant violations of Canadian law and international guidelines for the humane killing of animals.
“The number of sealers participating in the slaughter is at an all-time low, yet the cruelty is clearly increasing,” the group’s executive director, Rebecca Aldworth, said in a statement.
“This year, we filmed conscious baby seals impaled on metal hooks and dragged across the ice, wounded seal pups left to suffer in agony, and seals shot repeatedly in the open water.”
The federal government has long said that the hunt is a tightly regulated event that is humane and economically important to coastal communities.
As well, the Fisheries Department has said it recently struck a deal to export seal products to China. However, the department later said it is still finalizing protocols through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.