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Seal pelt prices climb despite celebrity pressure

Despite this year's high-profile protests against Canada's East Coast seal hunt, seal pelts are fetching the highest prices in years.

Seal pelts have doubled in value over last year. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The price for a single seal's pelt soared to $105 on Tuesday, more than double the average price paid last year.

"Before we went sealing, there was talk of seal pelts in the vicinity of $70 and right now they're going in excess of $100," said Eldred Woodford, president of the Canadian Sealers Association.

Woodford said seal fur prices are soaring because of high interest in Asia, as well as Northern Europe and Russia.

"The demand is there, and the buyers have a very low inventory, and they want to restock their shelves," he said.

Sealers have been harvesting young seals in two separate hunts – one off Quebec's Îles de la Madeleine and the other off coastal Newfoundland and Labrador – since mid-March.

Markets 'couldn't care less about Paul McCartney'

This year, celebrities including former Beatle Paul McCartney and former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson have called for an end to the annual East Coast harp seal hunt and a consumer boycott of any products made from seals.

"Our markets are in Russia and China and they couldn't care less about Paul McCartney," Dion Dakins of the Barry Group of Companies told the Globe and Mail recently.

"They're certainly not going to have Paul McCartney telling them they can or can't have seal."

The Barry Group runs two seal processing plants in Newfoundland and Labrador, handling pelts as well as seal oil capsules, which are rich in omega 3 fatty acids.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirms that 90 per cent of the pelts taken in Canada go to Russia and China, countries with cold northern climates where fur is highly sought.

Meanwhile, sealers are looking forward to one more day of hunting in the Atlantic off Labrador.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans suspended the hunt on April 14, but will let smaller boats resume taking seals on Saturday for one day.

Federal officials say there still may be up to 40,000 seals remaining in this year's quota.



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The Atlantic seal hunt – FAQs

There are few issues more controversial in Canada and around the world than the annual hunt of seals that takes place in the waters and on the ice floes off Atlantic Canada.

The bloody images, the heated rhetoric, the impassioned defences – they all combine in a familiar rite that pits governments and sealers against animal rights groups that decry the hunt, even as they use it as a primary fundraising tool.

Few facts in this debate go unchallenged. All sides agree on where and when. But how, why, and even how many aren't dealt with as cleanly.

Even the language is chosen carefully – words become instruments of reassurance or weapons of outrage. Hunt or slaughter. Harvest or cull. Sea mammals or baby seals. Cherished tradition or economic disaster. Cod-eating nuisance or adorable innocent.

Words, of course, are only some of the tools. The images of the hunt can be much more powerful and seal hunt opponents know it. Most people find the pictures difficult to watch. Supporters say the same kind of thing happens in slaughterhouses – places where cameras aren't allowed.

But there's no question that those with an interest in the debate have studied the arguments and methods of the other side well, refuting the opposing argument to persuade the undecided or reconvert the converted.

Answers to frequently asked questions on this issue often begin from the same starting point before veering off in opposing directions. Here are a few of those questions and how the big stakeholders respond:

1. How big is the Atlantic seal hunt, where is it taking place, and what exactly is being hunted?

There are federal quotas for three types of seals: harp seals, hooded seals and grey seals. Most of the hunt is for harp seals. The 2006 quota for the commercial harp seal hunt was set at 325,000. The hunt usually opens in March in the "Gulf" areas around the Magdalen Islands and Prince Edward Island. The main hunt on the so-called "front" usually begins in April off the coast of Newfoundland. It's pretty much over by May.

2. What about those cute whitecoat seals?

Whitecoats are newborn harp seals. Most Canadians can recall pictures of whitecoated seal pups being clubbed. The images were so inflammatory that Canada banned all hunting of whitecoats in 1987. You'd never know that from some of the anti-sealing groups that still prominently display pictures of whitecoats on their websites and in fundraising materials. One site even features a downloadable video of people hugging whitecoats. But the reality is that whitecoats can't be hunted anymore. But it's also true that young harp seals lose their white coats (and their protection) at about 12 to 14 days of age. After that, they're fair game for hunters, although they're usually about 25 days old before they're hunted. Most harp seals taken are under the age of three months. Young yes, whitecoats no.

3. Isn't it true that the hunt is cruel and seal pups are often skinned alive?

This is a frequent accusation levelled by hunt opponents. The International Fund for Animal Welfare says seals are routinely clubbed or shot and left to suffer on the ice until they're clubbed later. The IFAW also charges that seals are often "skinned before being rendered fully unconscious" and said its observers found that few sealers check for a blinking reflex to confirm brain death before skinning begins. Similar "skinning alive" accusations have also been made by other groups, with many citing studies claiming that up to 45 per cent of seals are "skinned alive."

A 2002 report in the Canadian Veterinary Journal found that "the large majority of seals taken during this hunt … are killed in an acceptably humane manner." This study found that 98 per cent of hunted seals it examined had been killed properly. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) cites this study among others as proof that the hunt opponents are wrong in their accusations of widespread cruelty. And regarding the "skinning alive" charge, the DFO says appearances can be deceiving. "Sometimes a seal may appear to be moving after it has been killed," the DFO says. "However, seals have a swimming reflex that is active, even after death. This reflex falsely appears as though the animal is still alive when it is clearly dead – similar to the reflex in chickens."

Furthermore, the DFO says the club, or "hakapik," used by many sealers is "an efficient tool" that kills "quickly and humanely." The Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing in Canada found that clubbing, when properly performed, is at least as humane as killing methods in commercial slaughterhouses. Opponents say clubbing often isn't "properly performed."

The federal government acknowledges that it has laid more than 200 charges against sealers since 1996, but argues that shows it's serious about enforcing its regulations.

4. Isn't sealing an important economic activity for an economically disadvantaged group?

The economic value of the seal hunt is another one of those things that is open to interpretation. The federal government says the landed value of seals was $16.5 million in 2004, providing a "significant" source of income for thousands of sealers – benefiting them and their families at a time when, according to the DFO, "other fishing options are unavailable, or limited at best, in many remote, coastal communities."

That amounts to a fraction of the $600-million Newfoundland fishery. But for some sealers, it represents up to a third of their annual income. And in a province with jobless rates north of 15 per cent, they say that means even more.

Not so fast, say the anti-sealing groups. The IFAW describes the contribution of sealing to Newfoundland's GDP as "trivial" and says after costs and indirect subsidies are taken into account (patrolling the hunt, upgrading plants, promoting the hunt, developing new markets for seal products and supporting research to find new products), Canadians would "likely find that the hunt actually costs the Canadian taxpayer money."

It's a pointless activity, in the view of the IFAW, which says, "the only economically valuable part of the seal is its fur, a non-essential luxury product that no one really needs."

The DFO flatly denies that it subsidizes the seal hunt. It also denies charges that the seal hunt is not sustainable. It says Canada's seal population is "healthy and abundant" at about five million animals and "triple what it was in the 1970s."

But the IFAW says the hunt has become a "cull, designed more to achieve short-term political objectives than those of a biologically sustainable hunt." For one thing, the group says Canada's management plan fails to account for wide variations in the natural mortality rates among seal pups.

A critique from Greenpeace also said the quotas are "scientifically indefensible" because they don't take into account the actual number of seals killed in the hunt – including those that are "struck and lost," or discarded because of pelt damage.

5. We all know what's happened to the Atlantic cod fishery. Don't seals eat cod?

Yes, harp seals do eat cod, among other things. But both sides now appear to agree that seals and cod can coexist. In March 2005, Greenpeace called on then federal Fisheries Minister Gerald Regan to "dispel the myth that seals are hampering the recovery of cod stocks." A letter from Greenpeace said, "the DFO has been a partner in perpetuating this myth."

But the DFO says sealing opponents are setting up a straw man (or seal, in this case) and then knocking it down. The federal government says anti-sealing groups are wrong to suggest that it's allowing the hunt to help cod stocks recover. "The commercial seal quota is established based on sound conservation principles, not an attempt to assist in the recovery of groundfish stocks," the DFO says. "Seals eat cod, but seals also eat other fish that prey on cod."



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