OTTAWA - For the first time in almost 20 years, the International Fund for Animal Welfare won't be sending a team of observers out on the Atlantic sea ice during the spring seal hunt.
The long-standing opponent of commercial sealing is instead planning to refocus its efforts on politicians who are trying to keep afloat an industry it calls "obsolete."
The lobby group is taking a step back because the much-publicized annual confrontations on the ice may in fact be counterproductive to its cause, said Sheryl Fink, the head of the IFAW's seal campaign.
"A lot of times just by being out there and being on the ice we sort of keep this thing alive," Fink said in an interview.
"I think if we take a step back, our hope at least is that this thing will continue towards its inevitable demise."
The dangerous spring standoff between the anti-sealing lobby and commercial harvesters has been a staple in Atlantic Canada for a generation.
One of the IFAW founders first began shooting graphic photos of the seal hunt in 1969. The lobby group hasn't missed a year since 1995, a spokeswoman said.
Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield declined an interview request and his office did not address specific questions about the IFAW's decision to skip this year's hunt.
Instead, after several hours, Ashfield's office said in an email that the government "supports the sustainable and well-managed seal harvest, which continues to be an economic and cultural activity in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the Arctic."
Another major anti-sealing lobby group, Humane Society International, says it will continue documenting the hunt and expects to have observers out by mid-April.
"That's a decision that's largely up to industry, but whenever the hunt does start, we will be there," said Rebecca Aldworth, Humane Society International's executive director.
Aldworth said that despite more than 40 years of seal-hunt images, it remains important to have current evidence to counter government assertions that changing industry practices have eliminated animal cruelty.
The IFAW, however, is convinced the end is inevitable, citing as evidence that fewer than 800 sealers took part last year and that international markets for seal products have largely dried up.
The fight moves to the World Trade Organization, where Canada and Norway are both contesting the European Union's ban on seal products. That's prompted the animal-rights group to launch a publicity campaign that lampoons a fictional government it calls the "Department of Obsolete Industry."
The Conservative government confirmed in last week's federal budget that it would provide $50 million over seven years to help former asbestos industry towns in Quebec diversify their economies.
It was a white flag of sorts with regards to an industry that had long been defended by governments of various stripes — and Fink said she sees obvious similarities with the seal hunt.
"Definitely parallels," she said. "We'd like to see the government put something in place to wrap up the seal hunt."
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