Elusive Chinese seal deal is just another year of empty promises

"This is a huge breakthrough for our sealing industry." - Former Canadian Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea - January 19, 2011 - CLICK FOR VIDEO

Back in January of this year, Canada’s then-Fisheries Minister Gail Shea announced to great fanfare and media attention that Canada had signed a new agreement with China, opening up the Chinese market to edible seal products.

Shea trumpeted loudly that ”thousands of Canadian families...will directly benefit from this new market access arrangement with China”, and industry and politicians alike patted themselves on the back for a job well done.

Unlike politicians who work in four-year cycles, the International Fund for Animal Welfare is fortunate to have a somewhat longer memory on sealing issues – after all we’ve been working on the campaign to end the seal hunt for more than 40 years.

These promises of a Chinese market for seal meat sounded familiar. A check through our files confirmed it – nearly two decades of Canadian politicians promising that China would open up its doors to seal meat inports and save the dying sealing industry, but it still hadn’t happened.

IFAW’s seal team immediately began to look for more information on the supposed deal. Our team in China met with Chinese government officials, and here inCanadawe submitted an Access to Information request for a copy of the agreement.

Surprisingly, our meetings with Chinese government officials indicated that Canada had perhaps misrepresented the deal; that it wasn’t yet ‘sealed’ and that it was still being considered. Months later, our Access to Information request was denied for reasons that implied a threat to national security.

One would think that such a highly touted “deal” – if it existed – would be public information.  After all, what could possibly be so secretive about seal meat?  So ever since, IFAW has been looking for the elusive “seal deal”.

So our attention was piqued on the evening of 25 October, while watching a webcast of the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. During the committee meeting (which is debating a grey seal cull that I’ll report more on later), the Associate Assistant Deputy Minister at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, stated that,

“The department is working with provinces to encourage investment in the area of product and market development.  The role of the department with respect to those efforts is very much that of the regulator of the harvest, as well as facilitating projects to create product opportunities and markets.

That included last January 2011, where a cooperation agreement was initialled with the government ofChina, with the prospect of importing meat and oil products.  That is still under review byChina, but that does potentially hold some promise for market development for commercial harvesters. “

Later in the meeting he went on to say, “Our former minister was inChinalast January where there was the initialing of a cooperation arrangement that is now under review by the Chinese government.  When they complete their review, it will hopefully permit the import intoChinaof seal meat and oils for use there.”

Whaaat? Did this mean there was really no deal after all? That nearly a year later, it appears that all this fanfare was over the “initialling” of an arrangement?  I suppose Canadian politicians misrepresenting the truth is nothing new, and we really shouldn’t have been so surprised.

It is a shame though, that seals – and promises to sealers – continue to be used as nothing but pawns in the politician’s game to get re-elected. Once the election is over, the promises are forgotten.

Now, we’re not saying the government of Canada should be keeping their promise to open markets for seal products. Far from it! It is becoming obvious that most of the world does not want cruelty-tainted seal products, and the past 20 years of trying to market seal meat to the world have proven to be a complete failure.

But sealers deserve far better than empty promises of reviving an industry that seems unlikely to recover. Instead of wasting millions of dollars on expensive trade lawyers, overseas political junkets that amount to nothing, and funds for pro-seal hunt lobby groups, sealers themselves could be profiting directly through a licence buyout or other means.  Government support to transition sealers out of an industry with such a bleak future is an action that IFAW – and most Canadians – would support.

For now, it appears s though the Chinese market remains closed to seal meat products, and so it should be. We have numerous concerns about the safety of seal meat being put into the food supply, including the lack of proper inspection, and the risk of disease, and contamination. IFAW will continue to work hard to encourage countries to close their doors to seal products, and ensure that new markets do not appear.

-- SF

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
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