Thursday, May 7, 2009

Seal the deal and this annual hunt

The St. Catharines Standard - Thursday, May 7, 2009


While federal politicians are publicly turning the air blue over the European ban on Canadian seal products, it's a safe bet most would be just as happy if the boycott finally killed the controversial annual slaughter on the ice floes.

They may well get their wish.

While the 27 member countries of the European Union long ago ceased to be prime markets for Canadian sealskin, they are nonetheless home to the world's leading fashion houses.

If seal fur is taboo on the runways of Paris and Rome, you can bet it won't be in big demand elsewhere in the western world, either.

Even without the European ban, the two largest remaining international markets -- Russia and China - have been drying up to the point of threatening the viability of the entire industry.

Like virtually all federal politicians, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised to go to the wall to help the Newfoundland sealers, and fight the European ban.

Why bother? The issue certainly isn't to save the Newfoundland economy, which, last time we checked, is now awash in oil revenues.

Nor is to protect the livelihoods of the sealers, most of whom are fishermen trying to make a bit of spare cash in off-season. We are not talking the difference between prosperity and starvation here.

Various official reports on the industry indicate that at its peak, seal pelts were selling for around $100, up to 6,000 sealers were taking their quota, and total sales were over $15 million.

The St. John's Telegram reported this week that pelts are now selling for only $15, "the lowest it has been in years."

As a result, over 70% of all the usual sealing crews decided this year's seal slaughter wasn't worth the effort and stayed home.

Not surprisingly, the big winners have been thousands of young seals.

The Telegram reports that a full month into this year's hunt for a government-imposed quota of about 240,000 seals in the region, fewer than 40,000 have been killed.

Do the math, and ending the seal hunt altogether would cost a few thousand sealers roughly the equivalent of less than two weeks of unemployment insurance payments.

None of this is to dismiss the financial worth of the sealing industry to mainly low-income off-season fishermen. Every dollar is important.

Indeed, if the seal hunt were just another harvest, the Canadian government would be remiss if it didn't try to protect the industry from the European Union boycott.

But as every Canadian politician knows only too well, the annual carnage of cute on the ice floes off Newfoundland is hardly ordinary.

For over 100 years, the clubbing and gutting of seals has provoked raging debate in this country -- some of it factual; a lot of it emotional.

For instance, killing those cuddly white baby seals is already banned.

Yet, anti-sealing campaigns almost invariably feature white pups being clubbed to death and skinned, their carcasses dragged across the bloodied ice on the end of a pick.

Reality is, even if it could be proved conclusively that slaughtering seals of any age is perfectly humane and ecologically necessary to control their numbers, a picture of the kill will always be worth more than a thousand words of rationalization.

That's why the Harper government is wasting time and money fighting the European ban as an international trade issue.

Even if Canada wins, so what? Anti-sealing organizations are already using the Internet to promote an international boycott of Canadian seafood exports, and even tourism to this country.

With any luck, a dying market will kill sealing before it seriously bloodies the whole country.

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