Animal welfare activists say Canada's embattled commercial sealing industry is threatened with imminent extinction because it is losing access to its largest market: the Russian Federation.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said it has obtained a document from the World Trade Organization (WTO) that shows the federation has banned imports of all harp seal pelts.
"We were pretty excited to find the document," said Sheryl Fink, director of IFAW's anti-seal hunt program.
"We've got confirmation from our Russian office that this is in fact a trade ban. We're curious to see how the government of Canada is going to respond to this. It should have a huge impact on the Canadian sealing industry."
Fink said the ban represents a major victory in the IFAW's 40-year campaign to persuade people that Canada's seal hunt is inhumane and unnecessary.
Officials at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa did not return messages seeking comment. Canadian officials said they were aware of the document but could not confirm its authenticity.
In response to a request for comment, the Department of International Trade said in an email that the federal government is committed to defending the sealing industry. The email did not address what impact the ban could have on the industry, nor what specific action Ottawa is taking, if any, in response.
The department declined an interview request.
The federal Fisheries Department says up to 90 per cent of Canada's exports of harp seal pelts have been shipped to Russia in the past, most of which were first exported to Norway. But the industry's global market shrank considerably in 2009 when the 27-member European Union introduced its own trade ban.
The United States banned the import of seal products in 1972. Though Canada's sealing industry represents a tiny fraction of the East Coast fishing industry, the annual hunt looms large on the region's political landscape – particularly in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the majority of the country's 11,000 registered seal hunters live.
Fink said the ban's economic impact may be overshadowed by the political fallout.
"It's sending a political message to Canada that countries around the world do not want seal products and they're concerned about the cruelty involved in commercial seal hunting," Fink said in an interview.
The federal government has long argued that the hunt is humane, tightly regulated and economically important to coastal communities, but the centuries-old industry is in deep trouble.
When the spring hunt concluded last year, federal officials said the season was one of the worst on record with only 38,000 seals killed -- less than 10 per cent of the allowable catch.
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 products, but that deal remains on hold almost a year later.
Rebecca Aldworth, Canadian director of Humane Society International, said the China deal has proven to be a dud.
"What has happened, in my opinion, is deliberate misleading of the Canadian public and the sealing community about the potential for a seal meat market in China," she said in an interview.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government is moving ahead with its bid to challenge the European trade ban through the WTO.
A senior federal official said Monday that Ottawa now has the option of fighting any Russian ban through the same organization because Russia was granted WTO membership last Friday.
Aldworth said there is a growing push to end the commercial seal hunt.
"It just shows the momentum that is happening at the government level around the world," Aldworth said. "If Russia has prohibited trade in fur from harp seals, it would have a devastating impact on the Canadian sealing industry."