By Michael Comte on The Sydney Morning Herald
A lack of sea ice in one of the warmest Canadian winters on record and a European boycott have ruined what was to be a banner seal hunt off Canada's Atlantic coast this month, according to officials and sealers.
Canada's Fisheries Minister Gail Shea last month increased by 50,000 the allowable catch of harp seals this season to 330,000, in defiance of a ban on seal products by the European Union.
But most of Canada's 6,000 sealers stayed home, unable to find buyers for their catch or stymied by a lack of ice floes for the first time in 60 years on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, which usually host hordes of seals birthing pups.
"The European boycott was devastating to the industry this year, as was the lack of ice on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence due to an exceptionally warm winter," Jean Richard, Canadian fisheries department conservation chief for the Quebec coastal region, told AFP.
"The hunt, as a result of reduced market demand, has been scaled back substantially," added Larry Yetman, fisheries resource management officer for the Newfoundland and Labrador coastal region.
Fewer than 50 sealing ships launched from Newfoundland ports, down from 500 in past years. Others would have eagerly set out to reap this year's higher pelt prices -- at 21 US dollars, nearly double last year's prices.
But there was now only one local buyer, NuTan Furs, which said upfront it would buy less than 15,000 pelts from a dedicated group of sealers this year.
"Every sealer in Newfoundland would have considered going out on the ice for that price, but there aren't any buyers," Yetman said.
He lamented that sealing conditions were otherwise ripe for a bountiful harvest along the Labrador coast: "The ice is close to shore, not heavy, and easily penetrated by sealing vessels."
"Unfortunately, we expect market demand to be satisfied in a couple of days, and then we would talk about closing the hunt," likely after less than 15 percent of the quota has been reached, he said.
To the south, a solitary ship set off with 10 crew onboard last week from the Magdalen Islands, where former Beatle Paul McCartney led a seal hunt protest in 2006, in search of prey for Quebec eateries.
The rest of the island's fleet remained docked, each ship too small to venture far beyond the Saint Lawrence seaway.
Denis Longuepee, president of the Magdalen Islands seal hunters association, said the steel-hulled 65-foot vessel Jean-Mathieu had already returned from Labrador coastal waters after nine days, with 2,200 seal carcasses.
Rejean Vigneau, a sealer and owner of a Magdalen Island butcher shop that specializes in seal meat, said their harvest was disappointing -- half of what he had hoped for.
"Normally, we never go hunting for seal meat," he commented. "We hunt for pelts and also bring back the meat. But there's no market for seal pelts this year."
Except for NuTan, all of Canada's seasonal seal processing companies have been shuttered, forcing the Jean-Mathieu crew to "throw pelts back in the water."
"It's a disaster, really unthinkable," Vigneau said. "It's the first time ever that this has happened."
Longuepee told AFP that there remained "a lot of demand for seal meat" as a delicacy, triple what it was last year and growing, but fisheries officials insist the market for the meat is still relatively small.
To try to boost demand, Canada's Fur Institute is expected to soon launch a seal cookbook originally published by the European Union, ironically three years before EU states voted in 2009 to ban the marketing of seal products from 2010 onwards.
In Ottawa, efforts are now underway to try to open up new markets for seal pelts in Asia while the EU ban -- called for by animal rights groups -- is being challenged at the World Trade Organization.