Fishermen in Newfoundland and Labrador caught only a quarter of this year’s seal quota as pelt prices plummeted, the recession clobbered their traditional markets, and Europe inched closer to a ban on the disputed products.
Fewer than 500 vessels carrying 1,000 hunters ventured out for the annual hunt this year with about 70,000 harp seals taken out of the commercial, non-aboriginal quota of 273,000 animals for the province.
A year ago, about 900 boats with roughly 4,000 sealers went out to take almost 218,000 harp seals. About 225,000 seals were killed in 2007.
Frank Pinhorn of the Canadian Sealers Association said many fishermen decided not to go out this year because of pelt prices that have bottomed out at $14 from a high of over $100 per pelt several years ago.
“Anything under $35 would be low and they won’t participate because they won’t recover their costs,” he said Wednesday from St. John’s, N.L.
“There are only three companies here that buy pelts and they were not buying.”
The industry is also carrying about 60,000 pelts from the previous year in a market that is drying up due to the recession, the depressed value of the Russian ruble and growing international distaste for seal products.
Fishermen are also grappling with the near certainty that the European Union will ban the importation of seal products, a measure that could take effect in October.
The European parliament passed the ban in May, but still needs the backing of EU governments. Officials have said that’s only a formality since national envoys had already endorsed the legislation prior to May’s vote.
Seal products can still be shipped through Europe, but promotion of those same products would be prohibited. Sealing industry experts fear that would shut off access to the fashion runways of Italy and France, countries that are highly influential in determining global fashion trends in the larger markets of Russia and China.
An official with the federal Fisheries Department said it will continue lobbying senior European politicians to make the proposed regulations more acceptable to Canada.
The department is also working on a World Trade Organization challenge, the official said, adding “we will exercise our international trade rights if the proposed regulation is unacceptable to Canada.”
Senator Fabian Manning linked the poor results from this year’s hunt to the recession but conceded there are concerns over the EU ban and the continued campaign by animals rights activists.
“Needless to say, we are fighting an uphill battle,” he said from Ottawa. “This situation has become very emotional and trying to put the facts forward is very difficult.”
Pinhorn is hoping the ban won’t interfere with trade between China and Russia, where the bulk of Canadian seal products are sold.
The most important thing for us is that it may interfere with the trade routes,” he said. “They have to go through European ports on their way to the marketplace.””
Shannon Lewis of the Northeast Coast Sealers’ Co-op said the ban might hinder trade, but he said the global recession is hurting the industry more than the proposed ban.
“It’s significantly decreased from last year and this economic recession has played a major part,” he said from Fleur de Lys, N.L.
“There was a combination of factors early on in the season that caused a lot of uncertainty, including the outcome of the vote” in Europe.
The ban would apply to all products and processed goods derived from seals, including fur, meat, oil blubber and even omega-3 pills made from seal oil.
In 2007, the landed value of the harp seal hunt was $12 million with an average price per pelt at $52. Pinhorn said Newfoundland sealers will probably bring in just over $1 million this year.
The drop in the catch and price has some wondering if it could spell the end of the centuries-old hunt, which provides valuable income to remote rural communities.
Pinhorn rejected the suggestion, saying people in the industry are hoping to expand the market by using seal products for different purposes. He said the medical community is looking closely at seal heart valves for certain procedures, while the oil is used in edible omega-3 products.
“Have we given up on the seal industry? Not a chance,” he said. “The seal industry will come back. You don’t have to worry about that.”