10/24/2012 03:46 EDT | Updated 12/24/2012 05:12 EST

Proposal to kill 70,000 grey seals could lead to new markets, processor says

HALIFAX - The head of the world's largest seal processing facility says if Canada approves a proposal to pay hunters to kill 70,000 grey seals off the East Coast, his company is eager to fill the global demand for grey seal products.

There's just one problem.

Dion Dakins, CEO of Newfoundland's Carino Processing Ltd., says even though the demand is there, key markets in Europe and China remain closed.

"It will require substantive action to open those markets to the products," he said in an interview Wednesday from South Dildo, N.L. "Markets internationally for seal products are challenged right now."

Dakins, whose company has been producing seal meat, oil and furs since 1957, was responding to a Senate committee report issued Tuesday that calls for the slaughter of up to 70 per cent of the grey seal population in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence to help restore struggling cod stocks.

The committee says the seals are eating too many fish, but a chorus of independent scientists and animal welfare groups say the call for a cull is not supported by scientific evidence.

The report also urges the federal government to promote grey seal products and develop long-term, domestic and international markets for them.

"There's a realization that you just can't have one cull and fix the problem," Dakins said. "It's going to have to be self-sustaining for a long period of time. It must be commercial in nature and it must be profitable."

Acting Fisheries Minister Gail Shea wasn't available for comment Wednesday, but in a brief email said she is still reviewing the report.

Despite the lack of a market for grey seal products, Dakins says he's confident a Canadian legal challenge at the World Trade Organization will succeed in opening the European market as early as this spring.

The European Union's 27 member states imposed a ban on seal products in 2010, a move that has decimated Canada's commercial hunt for harp seals.

As for China, Dakins said he's optimistic Canada will soon win approval from Chinese officials to sell Canadian seal meat there.

In November 2011, almost a year after Shea announced she had landed a trade agreement to sell seal meat in China, the Chinese government called for a review of the deal, which remains on hold.

Dakins said the federal government has a big incentive to open the Chinese and European markets for grey seal products.

"Either we develop markets, where it can sustain itself by being a contributor to local coastal communities, or it will be a cost to taxpayers to go out and cull the animal," he said.

But Rebecca Aldworth, an executive director of Humane Society International, said the idea of creating markets for grey seal products is a fantasy.

The WTO challenge will take years to settle and Chinese officials have told the animal welfare group they aren't interested in allowing the sale of Canadian seal meat, Aldworth said.

As well, she noted that Russia announced it was banning trade in harp seal pelts in December 2011 and the United States has banned seal products since 1972.

"The world is saying no to seal products and it's time that the Canadian sealing industry admitted that," she said in an interview from Montreal.

"There never has been a solid market for grey seal products and the industry has been fairly open about that. The only way that grey seal hunters can make money is if the sealing industry becomes a glorified welfare program and Canadian taxpayers pay sealers for every seal they kill."

The Senate committee also called for a bounty on grey seals, though it didn't say how much that would cost.

In 2011, only 200 grey seals were killed by hunters even though the federal government's allowable catch was 60,000.

The Senate committee confirmed there is little appetite for grey seal products.

"Given the fact there has never been a well-developed and viable market for grey seals, there is little incentive for harvesters to reach the (allowable catch)," the report said.

Aldworth said industry executives have confirmed there are more than 400,000 sealskins stockpiled amid disappearing markets.

Though Dakins admits market access remains a major obstacle for the industry, he said it would be wrong to assume the industry is on its death bed.

With the help of a $3 million loan from the Newfoundland and Labrador government, the company purchased 70,000 harp seal pelts last year, mainly from Newfoundland sealers.

Dakins said all of the inventory will be sold before the hunt resumes next spring, though he declined to say where the buyers are located.

"We don't open the door to new developing markets for animal rights groups to undermine our actions," he said. "Those markets are also showing growth."