Seal Hunt Winds Down as EU Prepares Vote on Ban

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Seal Hunt Winds Down as EU Prepares Vote on Ban

May 2009

After nearly 60 years of hunting seals off Newfoundland's shores, Jack Troake stayed home this year rather than venture out to sea and sell top grade pelts for $14 apiece.

"We just couldn't seal," for those prices, Troake said Monday.

"The prices were too low."

Canada's commercial harp seal hunt is winding down after one of the quietest seasons in recent years. Hundreds of fishermen kept their vessels docked because of harp seal pelt prices that were almost one-tenth of what they were three years ago.

In 2006, harp seal pelts could fetch $105 from local buyers. That has steadily dropped since, and the recession that has gripped the global economy has only made it worse for an industry largely built on the fur trade.

"It is a high-end market," Troake said.

But it's not just the fur trade that's felt the pinch.

Marian Smith, who sells fish products at a local plaza, said her seal flipper business has been struggling.

"It's been poor," Smith said. "We haven't been able to get any to sell."

Only 306 sealing enterprises from Newfoundland and Labrador have taken part in this year's hunt, compared with 977 last year, said Larry Yetman, a resource management officer with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

"For the Newfoundland and Labrador sealers, the seal hunt this year has gone very slowly compared to other years," Yetman said.

"We're not surprised. We understood that prices were going to be very low before the season started and that led us to believe that the numbers of sealers participating would be low."

There could be even fewer sealers left in the business if a vote by the European Parliament, expected Tuesday, results in a ban on the trade of seal products.

In March, a parliamentary committee endorsed legislation that would impose a ban on the import of all seal products to the 27-member European Union.

The bill does not specifically target Canada, but nonetheless could devastate the East Coast hunt because it is the largest in the world.

The vote on the EU's proposed legislation comes after intense lobbying from animal rights groups in North America and Europe. It aims to harmonize a patchwork of laws among several member countries that ban seal products.

A ban would shut down shipment points, such as Holland and Germany. While Canada's largest markets for seal products, such as Russia, China and Norway, are outside the EU, sealing industry experts fear a ban would curb the demand for seal fur from the fashion industry and disrupt shipping routes.

Ottawa estimates the EU ban could cut in half the $13 million annual value of the seal hunt to some 6,000 sealers in the country.

"This is very important money," Troake said.

"I don't give a damn what anybody says in central Canada or anywhere else in the world. If you go out and make $3,000 or $4,000 for eight or 10 days, that's big money."

Animal welfare activists, however, say that the hunt is a cruel and unsustainable slaughter that reaps little economic benefit.

Out of this year's total harp seal quota of 280,000, only 59,500 have been killed so far.

The hunt will continue for the next few weeks, as long as there's a market for seal products, Yetman said.

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