Twenty years later, the seal hunt still can’t wean itself from federal support

Twenty years on, the seal hunt’s dependence on government support continues.In my files, I have an internal Canadian government memo.

I pull it out and look at it often.

It recommends phasing out the Canadian Sealing Assistance Program “within 2-3 years.”

I wonder if it will ever happen.

Twenty years on, the seal hunt’s dependence on government support continues, with the latest $5.7 million for the sealing industry included as a highlight of last week’s budget announcement.

The Allowable Catch for this year is set at 400,000 harp seals, 60,000 grey seals and 8,200 hooded seals, but it is highly unlikely that the hunt will come anywhere close to this.  

Once again, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador has offered loans of $2 million to seal processors. Carino Ltd, a Norwegian-owned company and beneficiary of previous loans, sensibly refused the offer, noting that they still had plenty of pelts remaining in stockpile. PhocaLux International, a newcomer to the seal processing business, will use the loan to purchase some 35,000 skins from its members at about $30 a piece, prices similar to those offered last year. 

With so few active sealers remaining, the Canadian Sealers Association announced last month that they would be closing their doors, at least temporarily.

The 2015 seal hunt will potentially be one of the smallest in recent memory.

The slow death of the seal hunt – despite decades of government support - is not surprising. What is more baffling is that the Harper government is so intent on propping up this boondoggle.

The commercial seal hunt as it exists today is essentially a Liberal make-work project, introduced by Brian Tobin in 1995 to deflect attention from the fact that the cod moratorium was going to last just a wee bit longer than the two years originally promised. There was “only one major player” still fishing the cod, cried Captain Canada, and "his first name is harp and his second name is seal.”

Fishermen cheered - and anyone with a basic grasp of ecology died a little inside.

An increase in allowable catch, and hundreds of million in subsides got the ball rolling, but not for long. The sealing industry acknowledges it blew itself apart in 2006 by paying too much for poor quality skins and flooding the market. Then came the 2009 European ban on commercially hunted seal products, followed by a Russian ban… New rumblings of bans from China... A failed challenge by Canada before the World Trade Organization...The WTO ruling that animal welfare was a legitimate public morals concern that could justify trade bans... Norway ending government subsidies for their seal hunt.

Back in Canada, the sealing industry has required bailout loans for four years in a row, loans which exceed the annual landed value of the hunt.

The Harper government’s enthusiasm for this Liberal boondoggle is even more baffling when you consider the return they will get from Newfoundland in the next election. They will get no thanks, no votes, just more complaints that they are not doing enough to support the precious – and apparently priceless – seal hunt.

Honestly, it is difficult to see what more the Canadian government could do. It created the position of Fisheries Ambassador to work on market access for seal products. It fought bravely for the seal hunt “on principle” at the WTO, and lost. It funnels millions of dollars year after year into the industry and various sealers’ associations for seal product research, development, and marketing. It sends delegations to high-end fur shows in China to promote Canadian seal skins. It holds “seal day” and other various events, forcing MPs and media to choke back seal meat canapés with a straight face, often to a photographer’s delight.

It is astounding, then, to read quotes from a sealer - one who appears to have received several hundred thousand in government funds through sealers’ associations - saying “basically, we’ve been waiting for the federal government to come out with something to do with the seals.”

Pardon me?

It is not for lack of government support that this industry has failed.

Animal welfare concerns aside, sealing has always faced marketing challenges due to the nature of the products, and always will. The seal market research reports in 2015 are practically identical to those produced 20 years ago, including the challenges of marketing seal meat due to its “unique” taste, the promise of ever-elusive Asian markets, and proposing creative uses for dead seals that will almost certainly never be commercially viable.

The revival of commercial sealing has failed. It has failed fishermen, failed communities, and failed Canadian taxpayers.

Even in Newfoundland, there seems to be a tacit acceptance that the days of the seal hunt are over and perhaps it is time to move on. That message has not yet made its way to Ottawa, but it should, and quickly.

It’s time to stop beating a dead seal. With fewer than 400 active sealers in recent years, the money wasted trying to keep the seal hunt alive could be put to much better use through support for a sealer’s licence buyout and providing viable development opportunities for the affected communities.

--SF

For more on our work to end this hunt, go to our Ending Canada's cruel commercial hunt page

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