Governments offer help to develop seal products in backing Atlantic industry

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Ottawa and Newfoundland and Labrador will spend almost $500,000 on a pilot project to offer seal meat at stores in Canada and overseas in the new year.

Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea visited a boutique Friday in St. John’s, N.L., that sells seal skin coats and boots to announce Ottawa will contribute almost $292,000 to help expand markets for meat.

She dismissed protest from anti-sealing groups that criticized the use of public money to prop up the waning commercial sealing sector.

“It’s not a matter of dollars and cents,” Shea told a news conference. “This is a matter of principle for us. This is an industry that has been around for a long time.

“We’ve responded to everything that the anti-sealing organizations have thrown at us. And we know that we have a humane hunt.”

The province will contribute the remaining $206,000 for the pilot project. It will involve the bulk processing and marketing of seal meat from a federally approved plant in Fleur de Lys, N.L., said Shannon Lewis of the Atlantic Seal Development Association.

He said the industry group will work with government officials, the private sector and the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland to develop the new products.

The plan is for a broad campaign starting next year to offer frozen and vacuum-packed seal meat for wholesale and in ‘niche market’ stores in Canada and overseas.

Lewis said target areas include Vancouver, Toronto and other cities along with northern communities and “Asia-specific” markets that already buy seal meat. The pilot project is expected to create about 20 jobs. If it goes well, it will then be up to private interests to invest in more expansion, Lewis said.

“We feel very confident that this is going to be the future of the industry.”

He said all ages of gray, hooded and harp seals can be used to offer a highly nutritious food source.

“We feel it’s a product the world needs to recognize and be educated on.”

The announcement comes after a World Trade Organization ruling last week upheld Europe’s ban on imported seal products, citing public moral concerns for animal welfare.

Ottawa has steadfastly defended Canada’s commercial seal hunt and plans to appeal the WTO decision.

Animal welfare advocates called the trade ruling a major victory that respects aboriginal hunts.

Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International Canada, said public funding to promote commercial seal products throws good money after bad.

“It’s a completely futile attempt to invest taxpayers’ money in propping up a dead industry,” she said from Montreal. “We know that global markets for seal products are closing, they’re not opening. The recent decision by the World Trade Organization, if anything, confirms that.”

Shea said the WTO findings should be of concern to all its members and, by appealing the ban, Ottawa is standing behind thousands of families that rely on commercial sealing. She said Ottawa has so far spent close to $500,000 fighting the European Union’s 2010 embargo.

Newfoundland Liberal MP Gerry Byrne said the real question is why the federal government did not fight the ban or seek related compensation in negotiations for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Europe.

The CETA deal, if finalized, is not expected to take effect for two years. It would open up lucrative European seafood markets for the province’s troubled fishery.

Shea said it was decided that the WTO process was the best forum for challenging the EU seal products embargo.

Byrne said it’s a misguided strategy. Even a victory at the WTO would not compel the EU to reopen its markets and would likely mean a modest fine as the embargo continues, he said.

“Gail Shea and the Harper government she is a part of failed us miserably.”

Countries with bans on imported seal products include the U.S., Mexico, Russia and Taiwan.

A European Union court last year upheld Europe’s embargo, saying it fairly harmonizes the EU market while protecting the economic and social interests of Inuit communities.

The commercial seal hunt off Newfoundland last spring landed about 91,000 harp seals, up from 69,000 the year before, but far short of the federal quota of 400,000.