There's a new player in the seal processing sector in Newfoundland and Labrador this spring, and it is promising to shake things up for an industry that's already facing a great deal of challenges and uncertainty.
The company name — PhocaLux International Inc. — may not be familiar to many, but Bernie Halloran, the man at the helm, is no stranger to the sealing industry.
Halloran is the owner/operator of Always in Vogue, a business that specializes in high end outerwear, including sealskin products, with locations in downtown St. John's and in Moncton, N.B.
The company is also involved with a factory in China, where a variety of sealskin products are being manufactured for the sizeable Chinese market.
Halloran has formed a partnership with, among others, the Northeast Coast Sealers Co-op, to purchase up to 30,000 seals this spring and process them at a facility in Fleur de Lys, a tiny community on Newfoundland's Baie Verte Peninsula.
The company expects to pay between $30 and $35 per animal.
PhocaLux purchased the Fluer de Lys plant from the Co-op, and expects to hire up to 30 year-round employees, said Halloran.
"We're going after full utilization of the seal; not just fashion," he said, referring to the "huge value" associated with seal oil, which is rich in three kinds of Omega-3 fatty acids.
Undertaking is a gamble
As in past years, the quota for this year''s harp seal hunt is 400,000 animals, though no one is expecting the full quota to be taken.
The season opened on Sunday, and Halloran expects the Fleur de Lys plant will be in operation this week.
The company is going head-to-head with Carino Processing Ltd. in South Dildo, Trinity Bay, giving harvesters another option in the marketplace.
Both companies have received $1 million loans from the provincial government in order to purchase seals from harvesters this spring.
These loans are not unusual, but this is the first time two companies have qualified.
"Carino is not delighted we're getting into the game," Halloran told CBC News Monday. "They are still sitting on some inventory (of seal pelts)."
Halloran admitted it's a gamble, especially in light of the efforts of anti-sealing groups who have been trying to shut down the hunt.
Many countries, including the European Union, have closed their borders to seal products, but Halloran and others have their sights set firmly on the Chinese market.
Always in Vogue expects to open a retail store in China this year, he noted.
"It's probably not a really good time to get into this industry, but everybody on our team feels the same way that I do, that it's about to bust wide open," said Halloran.
A loss for Port Union
PhocaLux had originally planned to process seals at a seafood processing plant in Port Union, near Bonavista, that was damaged during a 2010 hurricane.
However, the costs to prepare the plant for operation were too high, said Halloran.
'I've been telling sealers to work with us to build a market before getting the prices up. Give us a chance in the new markets that we're looking at to put those products out there.' - Bernie Halloran
He described the Fleur de Lys plant as a "turnkey operation," with plenty of skilled workers in the area.
Halloran said his affiliates in China are designing and manufacturing many new products, and once these new lines are introduced to the Asian marketplace, he expects a much bigger demand for seals.
"I've been telling sealers to work with us to build a market before getting the prices up," he said. "Give us a chance in the new markets that we're looking at to put those products out there."
Meanwhile, Dion Dakins of Carino Processing was not available for comment Monday.