In a bid to resurrect Canada's flailing sealing industry, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make seal product exports a priority on his trip to China next week.
The Conservatives have been pushing to open the Chinese market for more than two years, but little materialized from a tentative deal that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced in early 2011.
"Our government will continue to vigorously defend this humane and highly regulated industry and to seek new international markets for Canadian seal products, including China," Mr. Harper said in a statement released on Thursday.
Although the sealing industry is a small fraction of Canada's fishing industry on the Atlantic coast, the annual hunt is a hot political topic in Newfoundland and Labrador, where most of the country's 11,000 registered seal hunters live.
Russia used to be Canada's largest buyer of seal items, but banned the import of harp seal pelts two months ago, and the European Union has had a ban in effect since 2010. Animal activists say these two bans ring the death knell of the East Coast's commercial seal hunt.
Many Canadian sealers seem to have given up hope since the bans went into effect. Last year, some 37,000 harp seals were killed, only 10 per cent of the total allowed catch set by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
"Of course, if China opens up, that will be a big deal for us," said Bernard Guimont, president of Ta Ma Su Seal Products factory based in Quebec's Magdalen Islands. "But the revenue of many fishermen is drastically down. It's a real tragedy, especially because the hunt is sustainable and humane."
China showed signs of warming up to Canadian seal products in January, 2011. Gail Shea, then federal fisheries minister, made several trips to Beijing and trumpeted a new deal with China as a "great potential for the Canadian seal industry." The final agreement was never inked and China has been stalling for more than a year as it undertakes a review.
While Canadian officials still say there is a "significant demand for seal products in China," the Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not clarify the reasons for the holdup.
Meanwhile, Mr. Harper and his ministers publicly backed the annual Canadian seal hunt on Thursday by sporting furry seal ribbons on their lapels.
"The Conservative government is holding yet another photo op instead of being upfront about the end of the commercial seal hunt," Senator Mac Harb said in a press release. "The government must tell sealers the truth. The market is dead."
The commercial value of the seal catch dropped to $745,000 last year from $1.3-million in 2010. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans estimates the population of grey seals is healthy and abundant at 8 million, one of the highest levels recorded since the 1950s.
"If the government really cared, they would help the sealers transition away from sealing and bring in licence buybacks," said Sheryl Fink, director of the seal program at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Editor's Note: The federal Conservatives hold one House of Commons seat in Newfoundland and Labrador. A previous version of this article did not make that clear. This version has been corrected.