Forget the Old World animal ethics of Europe. Canada is taking its seal hunt where the money is - to China.
Despite all the hubbub about the European Union's sanctions on the seal hunt, Europe is a relatively small market for Canadian seal products. But China is a big buyer, with greater potential and none of the uproar about animal rights that has made the seal industry a pariah in the Western world.
That's why Fisheries Minister Gail Shea and executives from five Canadian seal-industry companies are in China now, teaming up to work the market that could ensure the survival of Canada's moribund hunt. "There's huge market potential here," Ms. Shea said.
Tonight, Ms. Shea will introduce a seal-fur line at a fashion show at the China Fur and Leather Products Fair in Beijing. She'll also try to ease red tape for seal meat imports.
"They have a completely different approach over here," Bernard Guimont, president of Magdalen Islands seal products exporter Tamasu Inc., said from Beijing. "That's why we think it's a market that for sure has a great future for us."
The animal-rights activism of groups that attack the seal hunt as inhumane, featuring such celebrities as Paul McCartney and images of red blood staining white snow, has won a ban in Europe. But despite efforts to reproduce the campaigns in Hong Kong, the movement has yet to take hold in Chinese culture, where a tradition of eating a wide variety of animals, including dogs, makes it relatively immune to emotional appeals to spare cute seals.
"The Chinese eat anything. And they simply don't understand why you would put one animal above another," said Wayne Mackinnon, chairman of DPA Industries, which exports Omega 3 seal-oil capsules made from harp seal blubber. "I suspect that over the course of the next decade, the Chinese market alone could take all the seal products that we could make."
Sales of seal-oil products like DPA's might surpass sales of seal fur that was long the hunt's raison d'etre, but the collapsing economics of the fur industry threaten Mr. Mackinnon's business too: Unless sealers are hunting seals for fur, he won't get blubber at a reasonable price.
With pelts fetching only about $15, many sealers stayed home during last year's hunt, taking only a quarter of the catch allowed by Ottawa.
The landed value of the pelts totalled less than $1-million.
Ottawa, however, spent large sums campaigning against last year's EU decision to ban seal products.
But those efforts are more about culture wars than commercial deals. The federal government wanted to stop sanctions to protect the hunt's international reputation, and because siding with outport hunters over celebrity animal-rights activists from Europe was an obvious political choice for Conservative politicians.
The Foreign Affairs Department's "action plan" for the spring of 2007 alone had a $362,000 budget.
And the Harper government's fisheries ambassador, former Newfoundland finance minister Loyola Sullivan, racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses heading delegations to European capitals on a hopeless lobbying tour.
Last year, they launched a World Trade Organization legal challenge against the EU that will probably cost millions.
But in commercial terms, Europe was small potatoes: Most Canadian sales there were to fur processors, who sold their goods to other countries, but only about 10 per cent of the retail market was there. Most of Canada's exports are split between Russia and China.
China, rapidly becoming the world's manufacturing powerhouse, has been the centre of fur manufacturing for a decade, and its newly affluent millions have made it a bigger retail market too, Mr. Guimont said.
The Beijing fur show is rapidly becoming one of the largest in the world; the biggest is in Hong Kong.
The anti-seal-hunt campaign launched in Hong Kong last year has made some in the fur industry fear that activists will gain ground in the largest markets.
"We're taking that very seriously," said Rob Cahill, executive director of the Fur Institute of Canada.
Not just for the fur
Seals have long been hunted for their fur, but defenders of the hunt have long tried to promote other products to defend the usefulness and viability of the hunt. Seal oil, sold for the health benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids, is the other major seal product in what is a relatively tiny industry. But sealers still harbour hopes that sales of seal meat and heart valves might one day take off.
Fur used the be the most important seal product, but crashing pelt prices have hit hard. Peak prices reigned as recently as 2006, but a stockpile and a global recession brought a crash. Less than $1-million worth of pelts were landed last year. Pelts are cut from seals with blubber on them, and the skins are processed into fur and leather to make coats, hats, and gloves.
Seal blubber is processed into oil that is put into capsules and sold as Omega 3 oil, which is prized for its health effects. Trade statistics don't capture the size of exports in these products, although Wayne Mackinnon, chairman of DPA Industries Inc., which makes the supplements, insists Canadian sales total $10-million a year.
Despite Governor-General Michaëlle Jean's famous public snacking on a seal heart, exports of seal meat remain small, and the market is mostly described in terms of its potential. The costs of transporting and processing what is, in meat-industry terms, a niche product have meant that export sales to a few interested buyers remain small.
One hope for seal hunt advocates is a Greek doctor's work in advocating the use of seal heart valves in heart valve replacement surgery. It is only in the testing stage at the Quebec Heart and Lung Institute and elsewhere, but it offers the dream of commercial benefits mixed with the public-relations coup of a seal hunt product that saves human lives.
By Campbell Clark