Hundreds of villages in Atlantic Canada that depend on seal hunting for much of their livelihood are already feeling a sharp economic pinch from a European ban on seal products that went into effect last month.
For more than 20 years Eldred Woodford has taken part in the annual seal “harvest” on the ice floes along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, home to more than 80 percent of the country’s sealing industry. But the hunt now brings in much less money than it did only a few years ago, he said.
To be sure, there are still plenty of seals to hunt, but they are worth a lot less.
In April Woodford and his crew killed about 1,200 harp seals over 10 days in an annual hunt that usually accounts for about a third of his yearly income. But depressed prices for pelts mean this year’s catch will sell for thousands of dollars less than in the past.
“When you talk about an income between C$30,000 [US$28,000] and C$35,000 a year and you lose a potential income on sealing of C$8,000 to C$10,000, that’s a substantial loss,” Woodford said.
While the drop in pelt prices partly reflects the impact of the global recession on demand, the EU’s ban is also a big reason, says Frank Pinhorn, director of the Canadian Sealers Association.
Pelts were selling for C$30 each last year, while several years ago they were going for C$100. This year some pelts were selling for as little as C$15.
With the financial incentive waning, many hunters didn’t bother to venture out on the ice this year. All told, only 72,156 harp seals were taken, a quarter of this year’s quota of 280,000 animals.
“This year there wasn’t very many boats that did go sealing because of the lower prices,” Woodford said.
HUNT CALLED INHUMANE
On July 27 the EU gave the final go-ahead to ban all seal products after years of pressure from animal rights campaigners who view the annual hunt as inhumane.
The Canadian government continues to defend its sealing policies and will challenge the EU’s decision at the WTO.
“It seems that 25 to 30 percent of [seal] exports initially go to Europe. A lot of it goes to Norway or Finland to be processed. But then is transited through Europe to our main markets,” said Alain Belle-Isle, media spokesman at the federal Fisheries and Oceans Department. “It’s not clear how much of it actually stays in Europe.”
The main markets for seal products are in Russia and China. But the ban means Canada has lost a huge potential market in Europe.
“We know that there are growing markets for seal oil products like Omega 3 supplements in the EU, and that potential cannot be realized because we can’t ship seal products as a source for Omega 3 to the EU any more,” said David Barry, coordinator for the Seal and Sealing Network, an industry lobby group.
Over the last couple of years seal exports totaled C$10 million to C$12 million a year.
“In smaller communities that’s a lot of money,” Belle-Isle said.
“For the average Newfoundland and Labrador fishing family, 15 [percent] to 50 percent of their income originates from sealing,” Pinhorn said. “And the income per family here in rural Newfoundland and Labrador is already the lowest in Canada.”
Woodford lives in Herring Neck, a coastal village in northern Newfoundland with just 150 residents, including 25 sealers. The money he makes from the hunt is vital to his livelihood, he says. He uses it to buy or repair boats and equipment for the rest of the fishing season.