nl-sealskin-coats-2007file

If approved, a proposed EU ban would see sealskin coats and other products banned from sale in member countries. ((CBC))

Canada's new fisheries minister says she supports the commercial sealing industry and doesn't expect any major changes for next year's commercial hunt, despite a European Union proposal that threatens to ban seal products as early as 2009.

In an interview with the Canadian Press, Gail Shea said she's frustrated that the EU proposed legislation earlier this year that could prohibit the import of Canadian seal pelts and other products throughout much of the continent.

"We're extremely disappointed that the European Commission has proposed these measures to disrupt the trade of seal products across the European Union, but we don't expect that there will be any changes," Shea said.

"We're going straight ahead for the 2009 hunt. We're proceeding as usual."

The future of the sealing industry was cast into doubt in July after the European Commission proposed a ban on importing seal products from countries that "practise cruel hunting methods" — wording that opponents of the legislation say is fraught with ambiguity.

Shea said she doesn't plan to implement new regulations such as banning the spiked hakapik. Nunavut's former premier, Paul Okalik, and Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams have said they would support such a ban because of the bloody image the hunting tool conveys to the global community.

Mark Small, who has been sealing for 45 years, expressed some skepticism after hearing of Shea's support for the industry.

Call for observers to go with protesters

"It's one thing to say it, but it's another thing to put some meat on the bones and to take some strong action," Small said.

"If there's one thing that has been lacking to my knowledge over the past few years, it's that DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] has been slow to take strong action when it comes to the seal hunt."

Small is calling on Ottawa to have observers accompany seal hunt protesters who travel to the ice floes of the North Atlantic.

"On a number of occasions I have had to take observers out to monitor the way that I carry out my legitimate operation," he said.

"Yet those people can come in here and go out in helicopters and walk right up in your face and interfere with the legitimate work that's carried out by sealers."

Rebecca Aldworth, a spokeswoman for the Canadian branch of the Humane Society of the United States, disagreed with Shea that the hunt would proceed next year much as it has done so in the past.

"I think in a way it's avoiding the issue. This is obviously a fisheries minister who doesn't want to change the status quo," Aldworth said. "The problem is that the environment around the seal hunt is very much changing."

Largest markets outside EU

Aldworth said the federal government should implement a buyout package so that sealers can "gracefully" leave the industry — an argument Ottawa has rejected.

The European Parliament and the EU's 27 member countries are aiming to have a first reading of the proposed seal ban in March, just when the hunt is expected to resume. The measure needs the approval of all EU member states to succeed.

An import ban could deliver a devastating blow to Atlantic Canadian fishermen who rely on the annual hunt as a source of income, shutting down critical shipment points including Holland and Germany.

Canada's largest markets for seal products, such as Russia, China and Norway, are outside the EU. But sealing industry experts fear a ban would curb the demand for sealskins from the fashion industry and disrupt shipping routes.

In the past three years, the total allowable catch in Canada has hovered between 270,000 and 335,000 seals annually.

It is the largest marine mammal slaughter in the world.

The EU's proposed legislation would allow the import of seal products from countries that can guarantee their hunting practices are "consistent with high animal-welfare standards" and that the animals are killed swiftly without undue suffering. Special exemptions would also be allowed for Canada's Inuit community.