After the animal-rights uproar over slaughtered seal pups triggered an import ban of its products by the European Union last year, Canada's seal industry may be on the cusp of a new beginning.
It is attempting to shift public focus from the seal pelts to other products, including the meat, omega-3 oil, and food supplements derived from sealing, but in particular the innovative development of seal valves for surgical use to help prolong human lives.
Seal valves are viewed by some medical experts as superior to porcine and bovine valves for use in heart-disease patients. The valves are said to be more elastic and durable as a result of the harsh conditions under which seals survive.
Sealers in Quebec's Magdalen Islands who are desperate to preserve their livelihood, which has been threatened over the years by the wide-scale protests against the seal hunt, have embraced the initiative. The director of their association, Gilles Thériault, said it would be a major breakthrough for the industry throughout the Atlantic region.
"It will become more and more difficult for protest groups such as animal rights activists to protest against our industry if what we do saves human lives," Mr. Thériault said.
TaMaSu Inc., a Magdalen Island sealing company, is working with Laval University in Quebec City to test heart valves from harp seals for use in humans. Company president Bernard Guimond said the development of new products such as the seal valves for medical use could help breathe new life into the battered industry.
"We are still several years away from determining the safety of seal valves for implantation into the human heart but we estimate that it could become a $1.5-billion a year industry worldwide," Mr. Guimond said in an interview from France, where he is part of a trade mission on bio-medical products.
"It is a huge market, one that would only continue to grow over the years. The demand is currently evaluated at about 300,000 valves a year."
In 2010, Canada exported about $812,000 worth of seal pelts and $1.3-million in seal-oil exports destined mainly for the Asian market. South Korea was a major importer of seal meat, a market worth $70,000 in 2010. But none of these figures compare with the potential financial windfall from the export of seal heart valves.
Canada has asked the World Trade Organization to review the European Union ban on Canadian seal products while turning to Asia to develop new markets.
"The EU ban on Canadian seal products is inconsistent with the EU's international trade obligations. This is why the Canadian government has initiated a WTO dispute settlement process and why we are moving ahead with our WTO challenge," said Minister of International Trade Ed Fast, while visiting Newfoundland and Labrador last week.
Ottawa has reiterated its commitment to facilitate market access for Canadian seal products around the world as well as help in the development of new ones.
"A group of medical researchers is even studying the potential use of harp seal heart valves for human transplant," ministry spokesperson Rudy Husny stated in an e-mail on Monday. "We are confident that these innovative products will receive growing recognition in domestic and international markets."