ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - This year's commercial seal hunt off Newfoundland is being called a success despite relatively low yields, ongoing protest by animal welfare groups and international product bans.
Frank Pinhorn, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association, says about 91,000 harp seals were landed this spring. That's far short of the federal quota of 400,000 but an increase over 69,000 last year and 38,000 in 2011.
Pinhorn says the price for the best pelts was also up to about $35 from $28 last year.
"This was probably the best year we've had since maybe 2008-09," he said in an interview. "The seals were of good quality, and they're all following the regulations in terms of harvesting — humane harvest and quality harvesting," he said of sealers.
"So there's a marked improvement in the way the seals are handled as well. And that gives them a better price."
Pinhorn said there's growing demand for seal skin coats, boots, slippers and other products in the province and across Canada. He said fur is also still going to markets in China and other parts of Asia as the federal government fights the European Union's ban on seal products through the World Trade Organization.
The industry suffered a legal setback last month when the European General Court dismissed a Canadian challenge of the EU ban. The court upheld related legislation, saying it fairly harmonizes the European market while protecting the interests of Inuit communities that are exempted from seal product restrictions.
The federal Fisheries Department says starting next year, all licence holders taking part in the commercial seal hunt will have to complete training on its accepted three-step process for killing seals.
Harvesters must first shoot or strike animals on the cranium with a firearm or hakapik or club. They must then ensure the skull has been crushed and the seal is dead. The third step is to cut major arteries under the front flippers and bleed the animal for at least a minute before skinning it.
"The training program is working, and we have to continue at that so that sealers will operate in what we call a professional manner and treat the animals humanely and with respect," Pinhorn said.
The province has vigorously defended the seal hunt as a vital income source for struggling outports that rely on that cash to help fund the rest of the fishing season. For the second year, the Progressive Conservative government loaned money in March to help Carino Processing Ltd. of South Dildo, N.L., purchase seals from the 2013 harvest.
"The annual seal harvest is humane and sustainable, and is important to the long-term stability of fish stocks adjacent to this province," said the provincial Fisheries Department as it announced the $3.6 million loan. It noted that a similar loan in 2012 "was paid back in full and on time."
Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International Canada, said she spent a week this spring documenting the seal hunt off northern Newfoundland for the 15th straight year.
"And what I saw this year was exactly what I see every year: seals were wounded and left to suffer crawling through their own blood," she said from Montreal. "Seals that were wounded went into the water and were desperately trying to swim as the blood was pouring out of them. Some of them were gaffed alive on to the boats.
"This is the reason why groups like mine have been trying for more than 50 years to stop the commercial seal hunt in Canada."
Aldworth said there would not be a commercial hunt if not for government support offered at the expense of taxpayers.
"The sealing industry has become nothing more than a glorified welfare program."