Newfoundland and Labrador is funding an awareness campaign aimed at seal industry "misconceptions" ahead of a World Trade Organization appeal – support animal rights groups say is a misuse of public funds.
Fisheries Minister Keith Hutchings said Tuesday the province will give $60,000 to the Seals and Sealing Network, an industry group that's leading the campaign.
He said it's part of ongoing efforts to support the commercial hunt as hearings for Canada's appeal of a WTO ruling are set for March 17-19 in Geneva.
A WTO dispute settlement panel in November upheld the European Union's ban on imported seal products. Its decision in part cited "public moral concerns" for animal welfare.
"We want to be out in front again during that period to communicate as we've done in the past that it is a humane hunt," Hutchings said in an interview. "It's an industry, we believe, that can grow. It has been part of our culture and certainly our economic well-being for years."
Animal rights advocates say the commercial hunt is a needless slaughter, and called the trade ruling a major victory that protects aboriginal hunts.
Critics of the decision, including Inuit hunters, said the European ban and others like it all but wipe out major international markets. They also warned of a dangerous precedent that could be used against other commercial animal products such as beef, pork and poultry.
Both the province and Ottawa have vigorously defended the seal hunt as sustainable and well regulated.
Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International-Canada, has observed commercial seal hunts off Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec for the last 15 years. She said she has witnessed wounded seals left to suffer, adding that the industry makes unsupported claims that the hunt is safe.
"The only misinformation that I tend to see in the seal campaign comes from the commercial sealing industry and the government representatives that defend it," she said from Montreal.
"It's particularly frustrating to see tax dollars poured into this industry over and over and over again despite the clear indications that it is an industry that is dead."
She questioned the extent to which commercial hunts over vast areas of open ocean are truly regulated and whether they're sustainable.
"It's impossible for any entity to keep this hunt under close supervision, which is just one of the many reasons why the European Union has chosen to ban trade in seal products."
And while the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list assessing species at risk now considers threats to harp seals to be of "least concern" it also warns that climate change poses a serious future threat. It recommends the species be reassessed within a decade.
Glen Doucet of the Seals and Sealing Network said Canada's hunt is the most professional in the world.
"Our sealers are trained and have to pass a certification process," he said from Ottawa. "We have observers on board that supervise the hunt to ensure we're meeting those standards" set in consultation with veterinarians, he added.
The federal Fisheries Department has said that as of this year all licence holders taking part in the commercial hunt must complete training on its accepted three-step kill process. It involves first shooting or striking the animal on the head with a hakapik or club, then ensuring the seal is dead before cutting major arteries and bleeding it for at least a minute before skinning it.
Hutchings said there are now an estimated eight million seals in the region, taking an uncertain toll on cod and other fish stocks.
"Just looking at one species like the animal welfare groups do, I'd certainly welcome a look at the whole ecosystem and how they can support us in supporting that ecosystem."
The commercial hunt off Newfoundland last spring landed about 91,000 harp seals, up from 69,000 the year before but far short of the federal quota of 400,000.