Industry trying to become more professional as it tries to break into new markets
Frank Pinhorn— File photo
Hens lay eggs higher in Omega-3 fatty acids when fed seal blubber.
That's what Bud Hulan found in his research. In an October 2002 letter, he called his ACOA-funded project "a complete success."
"The results of this research provides evidence of the immediate industrial application of refined seal blubber oil as a feed ingredient for poultry while enhancing the nutritive value of the product (eggs/meat) produced," Hulan, a biochemistry professor at Memorial University, wrote.
The project was among the dozen seal-related undertakings funded by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency between 2000 and 2010.
The Telegram is revisiting many of those projects to see what worked and what didn't, and to get some insight into the financial support the industry needs in the future.
Today: what projects succeeded, and why others failed.
To no surprise, low demand for seal products - resulting from factors such as global economic conditions, the anti-sealing movement, and/or bans on seal products - was at the root of most failures.
Hulan's experiment - which received $25,600 in ACOA funding - was one that achieved its goal.
He didn't respond to interview requests last week to find out what became of his science, but in his final report in 2002, he wrote, "These results provide directly applicable consequences for the food industry and are already part of product development in a major egg producing company in Europe."
Another science-based project that enjoyed success was North Atlantic Biopharma's. In the mid-2000s, the St. John's-based company received $266,350 to create a seal-oil based intravenous liquid to benefit traumatic and post-surgery patients.
"We have completed the Crohn's study with very favourable results that will provide the framework for an application for approval to conduct human clinical trials," reads the firm's final report to ACOA in 2007.
"Because of problems with the performance of our Chinese partner, we decided to replace the cancer study with a study of ... sepsis patients. This also produced very positive results."
The report said the company was at a stage where clinical trials could be started for Crohn's sufferers and sepsis patients.
Efforts to get an update from Hi Liu, one of four MUN researchers behind Biopharma, were unsuccessful (apparently he was in China last week).
Biopharma's final report indicated clinical trials and commercialization could take between five and eight years.
Innovative Fishery Products of Belliveau Cove, N.S., also experienced positive scientific results in its quest to develop plant growth stimulators, protein feeds and oils from seals and fish.
However, the research - backed by $99,000 from ACOA - was shutdown after the project was completed.
"We did get good results," Doug Bertram, Innovative's CEO, told The Telegram.
"What happened was our current customer base found out what we were doing and notified us that if we proceeded we would have no market."
Bertram said those against seal products are concerned about the optics of the hunt, and have little regard for the common sense or history of the harvest.
"I don't know if you could ever put anything up front that would stop that."
Still, Bertram doesn't think all is lost and seal products have a future.
"There'll be a day," he says. "There will be a day."
ACOA supported many seal marketing projects.
The Telegram is focusing on two with very different results.
In late 1999, Atlantis Marine got $311,813 to produce and market a premium quality food grade seal oil as a nutritional supplement.
The company - backed by a number of Italians and a couple of local businessmen - had increasing sales until 2003, but then its numbers went south "due to the seal controversy" and the U.S. ban on seal products.
Atlantis Marine eventually went under, still owing ACOA $136,886.
Harold Wareham, one of the locals involved, told The Telegram everyone involved was out money.
"We all lost," he said.
Wareham explained Atantis Marine had an attractive product, but it was expensive to produce and the company couldn't compete in the remaining markets.
"Regrettably, that's what happened," he said.
The Canadian Seal Marketing Group, which got $100,000 from ACOA to attend trade shows in Russia and China in 2010, had better luck.
At those events, the group - two Newfoundland companies and one from Quebec - showcased seal fashions created by a Denmark designer.
That worked out very well, according to John Kearley, managing director of GC Reiber Carino, one of the companies involved.
While he didn't travel to China or Russia himself, Kearley saw the reaction to the products at a trade show in Montreal.
"I must say, in our booth, the attention we got was amazing," he told The Telegram.
Asked if attending the shows has opened markets for GC Reiber Carino - which acquired the Carino plant in South Dildo - he said it takes a while.
Kearley's company - in its former life as Carino - also enjoyed success with a $57,245 project ACOA helped it with in 2000 for a pilot on seal skin processing and
He said the pilot on seal skin processing worked out very well.
Indian Bay Processors of Centreville-Wareham wasn't as fortunate.
In 2004, it got $134,000 to set up a facility to can seal meat and produce seal pepperoni/salami, sausage, and tenderloin.
However, the company was forced to close last year primarily because seal meat was in short supply.
"We had the plans but it didn't work out," said Bernard Cumby, a principal behind Indian Bay Processors.
He said their facility never reached the point where it produced pepperoni, but it did export some meat to Korea that received good response.
Nova Scotia's Grey Seal Research and Development Society got favourable findings in its ACOA-backed examination of the possibility of developing a commercial grey seal harvest in that province.
The agency gave the group $132,000 in 2005.
Here's an excerpt from the organization's final report in December 2007: "Our final analysis is that there seems to be interest in the processing and marketing of grey seal products among Nova Scotia companies and an export market at the ready but current restrictions and limitations on harvesting by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the N.S. Department of Environment and Labour and potential issues with harvesting costs make it difficult to arrange an adequate source of supply at the present time."
The group disbanded a few months later.
Frank Pinhorn, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association, offered a suggestion about why some of the more recent initiatives failed.
He explained the industry has been hit hard by low market demand since 2006, when the price for a seal pelts soared to $115 each.
"Then we hit the recession, then we hit market resistance because the price was too high, and then the industry went into a tailspin, where it's been now for three successful years," he said.
"We've had three years now at less than 40,000 seal (taken) and prices at $20 (per pelt)."
Pinhorn said the industry has been trying to evolve to get through this rough patch. It's focusing on education and training, he explained, and trying to break into the Chinese market.
"The kick we're on now is we want to establish a professional industry, where meat is handled like you would a chicken, or a cow, or a turkey or a pig
"We got to make truly professional sealers. The days of doing this haphazardly are over with, if we're going to get into those international markets and specialized products."
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Tuesday: a look at what kind of government support the industry needs as it recreates itself.