April 15, 2010

Low Harvest Could Halt Canada Seal Hunt Early

Usually a banner month for seal hunting, this April has seen a shortage in seals due to lack of sea ice during a record-warm Canadian winter, and, according to officials and sealers, a boycott by the European Union has ruined the seal hunt off Canada's Atlantic coast.

The Fisheries Minister of Canada, Gail Shea, increased the allowable catch of harp seals this season to 330,000, up by 50,000 from previous seasons, defying a ban on seal products by the European Union.

However, most of Canada's 6,000 sealers didn't take the bait, unable to find buyers for their harvest and also foiled by the lack of available ice floes for the first time in 60 years along the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, which usually has an over-abundance of birthing pups.

The boycott was a huge blow to the industry this year, Jean Richard, Canadian fisheries department conservation chief for the Quebec coastal region, told AFP. And the lack of ice due to a record warm winter didn't help.

The seal hunt "has been scaled back substantially," added Larry Yetman, fisheries resource management officer for the Newfoundland and Labrador coastal region.

During an average season, more than 500 sealing ships depart Newfoundland ports. But this year, fewer than 50 have left port. Others would have set out to the hunt, with pelt prices at a record 21 dollars -- nearly double last year's prices -- if it weren't for the boycott which leaves most sellers without buyers.

Only one local buyer, NuTan Furs, remains. NuTan said upfront that it will only buy about 15,000 pelts from a dedicated source of sealers this season.

Denis Longuepee, president of the Magdalen Islands seal hunters association, said one ship ventured out for the hunt for seal meat and returned with 2,200 carcasses after a nine day hunt.

Rejean Vigneau, a sealer and owner of a Magdalen Island butcher shop that specializes in seal meat, said the 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."

All of Canada's seasonal seal processing companies have been shut down this year, except for NuTan. there is not enough market left for the pelts and the crew of the Jean-Mathieu fishing vessel had 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."

The demand for seal meat, however, has tripled what it was last year and is growing, but fisheries officials say the market is still relatively small, Longuepee told AFP.

In Ottawa, efforts are underway to open up new markets for seal pelts in Asian countries, while the European boycott is being challenged at the World Trade Organization.

The boycott was voted on in 2009 to ban all seal products from 2010 onwards, based on substantial protest by animal rights activists.


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