The Newfoundland and Labrador government says there will be huge implications for the province's embattled sealing industry if Russia follows through on a plan to impose trade restrictions on importing harp seal pelts.
The provincial government issued a statement Friday saying the Canadian government should consider challenging Russia's proposal through the World Trade Organization.
About 90 per cent of Canadian harp seal pelts — most of which come from Newfoundland and Labrador — are typically shipped to Russia, sometimes via Norway, the federal Fisheries Department says.
Earlier this week, the federal government confirmed trade restrictions on raw and tanned harp seal pelts could be in place as early as Jan. 1 in Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade appeared to be caught off guard Tuesday when the International Fund for Animal Welfare announced that it had obtained documents from the WTO showing Russia was imposing trade restrictions on harp seal pelts.
On Thursday, International Trade Minister Ed Fast issued a statement saying he had instructed his officials to express Canada's concerns to their international counterparts, and to look for ways to make sure the industry continued to have access to the three markets.
Newfoundland and Labrador's fisheries minister, Darin King, said it appears the Russians have been misled about the industry by groups opposed to the hunt.
'Very serious matter'
"This is a very serious matter with huge implications for the industry," King said in the statement.
"Our government has expressed its concerns to the government of Canada and urged action to be taken against any proposed restrictions on the trade of harp seal products."
King said the restrictions, if implemented, would violate international trade agreements.
The minister said the annual seal hunt off Canada's East Coast is a humane and sustainable enterprise that does not threaten the harp seal population.
"Those who are informed with the facts know that the Canadian harvest is one of the world's best managed harvests of wild animals and provides important income for sealers both here and in other parts of the country," King said.
"The provincial government has requested that the government of Canada take immediate and decisive action to protect the legitimate interests of Canadian sealers."
There are about 11,000 registered seal hunters in Newfoundland.
Typically, about half of them take part in the annual hunt when conditions are good.
The 2010 season was a dud, with less than 10 per cent of the allowable catch of 400,000 slaughtered.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare says Russia's plan represents a major victory in the group's 40-year campaign to persuade people that Canada's seal hunt is inhumane and unnecessary.
"By shutting the door to 90 per cent of the market for Canada's harp seal exports, the future looks bleak for an already struggling industry," Sheryl Fink, director of IFAW's seal program, said earlier this week.
In 2009, the 27-member European Union introduced its own ban on non-Inuit harp seal products. Canada is already challenging that ban through the WTO.
The United States banned importing seal products in 1972.
The Canadian government announced in January that it had signed a deal with China to open the world's single-largest market to Canadian seal meat, but that deal remains on hold.