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by Rebecca Aldworth
For years, The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International have worked to put an end to Canada’s commercial seal hunt—and our campaign is having a real impact. An end to the commercial seal hunt could be in sight, with ecotourism emerging as a far more sustainable and humane alternative.
In May 2007, Canada's top seal skin buyer reported that "a severe downturn in the prices for seal skins on the world market."
The seal processing plants just released their 2008 price lists, which show a marked decline in prices they offer for seal skins.
This year, the skin of a seal pup—in perfect condition—will be worth only $33, a drop of more than two-thirds from the 2006 price paid. What's more, processors this year are using a grading system that means many skins won't achieve the top price.
Shrinking Market for Seal Fur
One obvious reason for the price drop is the increasingly shrinking market for seal products around the world. The manager of one Newfoundland seal processing company indicated that North American buyers are mindful of a proposed ban on seal products across Europe, which could explain this year's low prices.
In the past two years, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany, France, Mexico and Panama have either banned seal product trade or have announced their intention to do so. Now, the European Union is considering a union-wide ban on all seal product trade—a move many believe could shut down the Canadian seal hunt.
Given rising fuel costs and treacherous northwest Atlantic ice conditions, many sealers are saying it might not be worth it to participate in the hunt this year.
That attitude could be showing up in kill numbers: In the first two weeks of the 2008 commercial sealing season, 2,000 seals were killed, a far lower number than what has been reported during the same timeframe in previous years.
It's possible some sealers are beginning to see that commercial sealing doesn't make economic sense—a notion animal protection groups have been arguing for years.
At least three economic analyses conducted in recent years have determined that, after government subsidies are taken into account, the net value of Canada's commercial seal hunt is far lower than what the sealing industry and Canadian government report.
A 2001 report showed more than $20 million in government subsidies were given to the sealing industry in the seven years prior.
The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans continues to deny that it provides subsidies, but animal protection groups have noticed high levels of government support in recent years to the sealing industry.
These subsidies include:
- $3.4 million for Coast Guard assistance to sealing vessels in 2007
- Free Department of Fisheries and Oceans patrol flights each year to find seal herds and report coordinates to seal hunters
- More than $500,000 in grants to processing companies and seal product marketing companies in 2004-05
- Extensive government lobbying in the U.S. and abroad on behalf of the sealing industry in the past two years
- A $7.9 million Canadian government compensation to seal hunters and other fishermen affected by ice conditions in 2007
Subsidies are not the only cost of sealing in Canada. In 2005, a coalition of some of the world's most powerful animal protection groups launched a boycott of Canadian seafood products. Since then, more than 3,500 businesses and 500,000 people have pledged to avoid Canadian seafood until the seal hunt is stopped.
A Humane Model Native to Canada
As the public and the sealing industry contemplate the dismal future of seal hunting, some leaders are looking to economic solutions as a way to end the hunt. One of the most obvious and effective solutions would involve a sealing industry buyout. Buyout or "license retirement" programs have been implemented for decades in Canada, the U.S., Britain, Europe, Australia, Taiwan and other countries in the wake of fishery closures and fishing capacity reductions.
Buyout programs can take many forms but generally involve paying out federal funds in exchange for fishing licenses. The programs can be combined with retraining and community economic development initiatives.
One of the best known fisheries buybacks in Canada occurred in 1992, after the government mismanagement and subsequent population collapse of northern cod off Canada's East Coast. The Canadian government provided nearly $4 billion CDN to help fishers and plant workers adjust to cod fisheries' closures, giving them an array of initiatives including income support, training and relocation help as well as offering license buyouts and assistance programs for economic diversification.
Before the 1992 moratorium, the cod fishing industry was worth $250 million dollars a year. In 2007, the value of the seal hunt in Canada was about $12 million, in comparison. The funds needed for a sealing industry buyout would be marginal when compared to the funds the government already committed to larger fishery buyouts in the past.
Canada can follow its own lead in turning the economic tide of the hunt. In the 1970s, Canada declared a moratorium on commercial whaling and instituted a buyback program for whaling licenses. Ultimately, the country's closure of commercial whaling was a positive development for coastal communities in economic terms.
Today, whale watching is one of the most important tourism attractions in Eastern Canada.
The sealing industry has expressed some interest in using that idea as a model. On April 15, 2006, The (Montreal) Gazette reported that sealers from Prince Edward Island were open to the concept of a buyout.
Communities that formerly benefited from the seal hunt would also cash in on the alternative tourism industry. Their proximity to the seal nursery makes those communities ideal ecotourism destinations.
In 2001, the European Regional Development Fund co-financed a series of reports on the development of marine ecotourism in the European Union.
The reports identified seals as a popular target for ecotourism and concluded that this kind of marine ecotourism may be able to help regenerate coastal communities, as well as mitigate the effects of low incomes, low levels of investment, high unemployment and a diminishing population.
While those observations are specific to the EU's Atlantic coast, the findings could be equally applied to Canadian coastal regions. Ecotourism can provide revenue for local communities and jobs for local residents.
The country's abundant wildlife, open space and beautiful landscapes are its main attractions for foreign tourists. Nature tourism is the one of the fastest growing segments of the Canadian tourism industry and shows a 15 percent growth each year.
Every year, four million people pay money to go whale watching in North America. That interest translates directly to tourism revenue: In Newfoundland—Canada's main sealing province—more than 1.3 million whale watchers contribute nearly $20 million in annual revenues to the provincial economy.
An Untapped Industry
Canada has hardly tapped into the benefits of seal watching, despite the tremendous opportunities for expansion. Seal watch tours are already available on Canada's East Coast. A recent story in The Canadian Press reported that seal ecotourism brings in about $1 million to the Magdalen Islands economy annually, with visitors coming from as far away as Japan, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany.
In 2007, with a total quota of just more than 13,000 seals, the region's value of commercial seal hunting was likely substantially less than the economic contribution of seal watching.
Tourists have said they think more people would take a seal tour if the hunt was stopped. Despite this, the commercial seal hunt proceeds just days after ecotourism trips to the harp seal nursery end. The hunt targets the same pups hundreds of tourists just paid to see.
There is a way to end the commercial seal hunt without financially penalizing the fishermen who take part. The solution will take creative and progressive thinking, and a real investment from the federal government.
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