Sealing has been hit hard by low demand, a product ban within the European Union and protests from high-profile animal welfare groups.
The industry also finds itself standing anxiously on China’s doorstep, awaiting final approval to sell products to the world’s largest population.
So what does an industry facing such challenges and opportunity need from funding agencies like the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agencies (ACOA)?
The consensus among those involved — money for marketing.
“Marketing is the big thing,” said Bernard Cumby, whose company, Indian Bay Processors, closed last year because it couldn’t get enough seal meat.
Between 2000 and 2010, ACOA awarded nearly $1.3 million to a variety of seal-related projects.
In the two previous articles in this series, The Telegram has explored the mixed outcomes of those initiatives.
Included was Indian Bay Processors’ failed attempt at canning seal meat and producing things such as seal pepperoni in Centreville-Wareham.
Today’s piece looks at what kinds of initiatives will need funding from ACOA, and similar agencies, as the embattled industry rebuilds itself.
Every industry-type interviewed suggested support for marketing efforts was critical.
“There has to be a marketing campaign,” says Doug Bertram, CEO of Innovative Fishery Products, the Belliveau, N.S., company that used ACOA money to develop plant growth stimulators, protein and oils from seals, although it halted research due to negative response from clients.
ACOA has supported a handful of seal marketing initiatives in the past. Some of the businesses failed. Others have succeeded.
With the industry at a low point, there is an appetite for more of the latter.
Future marketing has to raise the industry’s profile by touting its strengths and potential, according to Frank Pinhorn, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association.
That, as well as the accompanying promotions and public relations, are big issues for his organization.
“We have to take some of the aspects of the products and we have to build on them,” he said, using the health benefits of seal oil as an example.
People in the industry listed other types of endeavours where ACOA or federal funding would come in handy.
Pinhorn said successful work done from the mid-’80s to 2000 led to the development of seal oil capsules. He’d like to see a similar approach taken to developing seal meat and other seal products.
But, of course, ACOA is simply a funding agency. For it to support future seal marketing, science and/or production, someone in the industry — or willing to enter it — has to ask for assistance.
“As for future ACOA support for seal-related projects, or any project seeking funding from the agency, as always, this will be evaluated on the merits of each individual application, the potential economic benefit and the results of ACOA’s standard due diligence review process,” reads an email from a spokesman.
Despite the mixed success of past seal initiatives, it’s only a matter of time before new funding applications are submitted, as people in the industry believe sealing has a future.
Pinhorn said there are already indications next spring’s hunt will see a big improvement over the past three years, when less than 40,000 animals were taken.
And Innovative Fishery Products’ Bertram believes the seal harvest will have its day. The world needs protein and the hunt just makes common sense, he said.
“We, as a population, have to survive on nature. We’ll have to eat them eventually.”
Pinhorn noted several companies have approached him about putting together a seal promotions campaign for the Chinese market, something that would be similar to one done for northern shrimp a few years ago.
The need to get such an undertaking in place could be pressing if Pinhorn’s prediction comes true that Canadian seal products will enter China this spring and only grow from there.
“We think the potential is there. It’s only a matter of getting it started.”
Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, who travelled to China earlier this month, believes the same thing.
He met with numerous people during his mission and saw a demand.
“There’s a huge interest in China for seal meat products, edible seal meat products, and the hides, and for things like the Omega-3 oil that makes up part of those animals,” he told The Telegram Friday.
But funding from agencies like ACOA is only part of the federal support needed.
Pinhorn said Ottawa also has to finalize its trade agreement with China, and it can build the industry by helping Canadian sealers network with harvesters around the world.
As well, he stresses, the feds can assist by making education, training and certification mandatory for seal harvesters.
“We can’t afford to have sealers out there who don’t know the basic principles of what they are trying to do and how they are supposed to do it.”