BEIJING — Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea is heralding a new trade deal with China that will see the world’s most populous country import Canadian seal meat and possibly breathe new life into the ailing industry.
Shea announced the agreement Wednesday in a conference call from Beijing, where she is trying to promote Canadian seafood and seal products.
Shea said the deal, which has been in the works for more than a year, will take effect Thursday and make Canada the only country allowed to export seal meat and oil to the massive Chinese market.
“For Canada, sealing is about more than fur — the trade of other seal products represents a growing share of what is already a multimillion-dollar business,” she said.
“This is all part of the bigger picture of growing this industry to its full potential.”
But animal rights activists argue Canadian processors could have a hard time selling the maligned products in China, which they say has little appetite for the meat and is joining a growing number of countries that view the seal hunt as inhumane.
Rebecca Aldworth, a Canadian spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States, said she was in China in November to screen footage from last year’s seal hunt off eastern Canada.
Aldworth said there is rising opposition to the hunt and a reluctance to accept the products as food sources.
“I don’t believe there is any future for the Canadian sealing industry in China,” she said from Montreal.
“I’m confident the people of China will reject these products of cruelty just as the rest of the world has done.”
Shea said it’s hoped new markets in China will offset expected losses from a ban on the importation of seal products into the EU.
She couldn’t put a dollar value on the possible seal meat and oil exports, but said it will be up to the industry to promote a product they have tried for years to introduce to the Asian country.
“Initialling this arrangement of course means we now have access, but it will be up to the industry to ensure that we actually start selling some of these products into the marketplace,” she said.
Sealer Jack Troake said the deal could provide some new opportunities for an industry that has suffered in recent years from poor ice conditions, dwindling demand and falling pelt prices.
But he said there is a lot of work involved in preparing seal meat for human consumption and the price will have to make it worth the effort.
“It’s great if it’s worthwhile for the sealer,” he said from Twillingate on Newfoundland’s northern coast.
“I can see a potential for it to be a good market if this is done properly and this stuff is handled right.”
Cathy Towtongie, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the territory’s Inuit land-claims organization, welcomed the deal and said it will expand the markets for native hunters.
“Inuit are always looking for new markets for our products,” she said in a statement. “NTI fully supports the proposed agreement.”
China is the third largest export market of Canadian seafood products, with an average of over $300 million in exports annually.
Only a fraction of the quota of 330,000 seals was caught last year, with many sealers choosing to stay home. Korea and Japan are the only other countries that buy edible seal products.
Participation in the seal hunt has been falling since the introduction of the EU ban last year and a decrease in markets.
Fisheries officials estimate that about 5,000 individuals derive some income from sealing.
In 2007, the landed value of the harp seal harvest was $12 million and the average price per pelt received by sealers was approximately $52, compared to $14 in 2009 and about $23 last year.
The harp seal population is estimated at 6.9 million — more than three times what it was in the 1970s.
— By Alison Auld in Halifax