The federal government is opening a new front in its decades-old clash with anti-sealing groups, shifting the battlefield from ice floes to the Internet.
Concerned that seal protests timed for the Vancouver Winter Olympics may further bloody the country's reputation, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade posted a contract for a company to monitor and neutralize "well-organized anti-sealing groups" who are cultivating vast support online through Facebook, Twitter and other social-networking sites.
One such group, the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, recently launched a site that features the cute Olympic mascots Miga, Quatchi and Sumi murdering a frightened seal. Several other sites run by Humane Society International, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society all post videos of Canadian hunters clubbing seals and dragging their bleeding carcasses across the ice.
The DFAIT tender, posted Dec. 17, suggests the Conservatives realize they're being seriously out-manoeuvred online. Wily environmental groups are "leveraging Web 2.0 technologies and platforms to build communities of interest" by "posting videos, images and other details (frequently incorrect or disingenuous) on platforms like YouTube and Flickr where sharing and viewership are maximized," according to a federal abstract the contract tendering site MERX.
To repulse that growing online presence, the federal government aims to spend between $50,000 and $100,000 on a firm that can help in "correcting false information and dispelling myths about the Canadian seal hunt," according to Dana Cryderman, a foreign affairs spokeswoman.
Among those misconceptions, Ms. Cryderman said, is that Canada is callous in its regard for animal welfare.
"Canada goes to great lengths to ensure a humane, well-regulated and sustainable seal hunt," she wrote in an e-mail. "Canada's Marine Mammal Regulations stipulate that seals must be killed quickly using only high-powered rifles, shotguns firing slugs, clubs or hakapiks."
Not quickly enough for the cameras, however. With the rise of video-sharing sites, gruesome clips showing hunters bludgeoning seals until ice floes are covered in blood have circulated the world, offering vivid challenges to any claims of humanity.
In May, the European Union voted to ban the import of seal products, citing cruel hunting methods. The ban goes into effect in August of next year, and would effectively shutter the largest remaining market for Canadian seal pelts.
The U.S., Mexico and several other countries banned seal imports as far back as 1974.
"You now have more than a billion people whose governments have passed seal bans," said Michael O'Sullivan, executive director of the Humane Society of Canada. "That means one in every six people on Earth don't believe in what the Canadian government is doing."
Despite the outrage abroad, politicians of all stripes have found that defending sealers makes for good optics at home. Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic MPs have all publicly supported the industry, successfully lobbying the parliamentary restaurant to place seal meat on its menu.
But the political backing cannot mask the industry's plummeting fortunes.
The total hunt in 2009 netted just $1-million, down from between $2.5-million and $20-million in previous years. Prices have sagged as low as $15, from a 2006 peak of $105.
With the industry in tatters, anti-sealing campaigners expect the government's online countermeasures to have little effect on their battle to ban the hunt.