Why China just may be the seal hunt's last hope

If you're looking for the new Always in Vogue location, it's just around the corner from Sephora in the mall. That mall, though, is in northern China, and is the new hope for an industry that's seen better days, writes Adam Walsh.

China may be the seal hunt's last hope

8 years ago
Duration 4:52
Canadian seal fur products are banned in many countries. One Newfoundland company is hoping to get the Chinese seal of approval to expand the industry.

If you're looking for the new Always in Vogue location, it's just around the corner from Sephora in the mall. 

Except that the mall is not in St. John's, where Always in Vogue is best known for its boutique on Water Street. 

Rather, this mall is in Shenyang, in northern China, the country that is the new hope for an industry that's seen better days.

Customers looking at seal fur products in Shenyang, China. (Philippe Grenier/Radio-Canada)

Last year, fewer than 40,000 harp seals were harvested out of a federal quota of 400,000. 

If St. John's-based company PhocaLux International's gamble pays off, next year's harvest will be significantly greater. 

The company's partners are wagering that the biggest city in a province of more than 44 million people, where winters are bitterly cold and fur is popular, will embrace seal products.

Status symbol 

"Northeast China has a culture to wear mink coats," Kevin Zhao, who heads the China side of the operation, told me in early November at the new Always in Vogue location. 

The shop is crowded with local Chinese media, who are here for the store's first in-shop media event. Zhao has a handful of models on hand for a small fashion show. 

The busy streets of Shenyang, China at night. (Philippe Grenier/Radio-Canada)

"It was a privilege for wealthy people in the past," he said. "Now people still want to get mink coats to represent wealth."

Zhao said it's traditional, when a couple gets married, for the mother-in-law to buy her son's new spouse a mink coat.

There are now, Zhao said, hundreds of mink stores in Shenyang, an indication of a booming appetite for fur coats. 

By comparison, he said, the only store that sells seal fur in China is Always in Vogue. 

Brand recognition

The strategy, Zhao said, is to market seal fur jackets as a luxury product in a city that's growing a little bit bored with mink. 

Models showing of Always In Vogue's seal fur products outside of the new location in Shenyang China. (Philippe Grenier/Radio-Canada)

"More people will know us in the next few months because we are going to do some advertising," says Zhao. 

In fact, the advertising push has already begun. In late October, seal fur jackets were front and centre for a fashion and luxury car show in Shenyang. 

Standing next to Kevin Zhao as models in seal fur jackets do their best poses for local media is RJ Millar, the science side of PhocaLux.

The China team for PhocaLux eating lunch before their first local media event in the newly opened Always In Vogue location in Shenyang China. (Philippe Grenier/Radio-Canada)

"We want to make sure we use all of the seal," said Millar, who touts the health benefits of the Omega 3 in seal oil and who says there's some fascinating research being done on health benefits of seal oil. 

Millar even believes that seal oil can benefit people with autism, diabetes and even cancer. 

What's more, his plan is to bottle it and sell it.

The hunter 

Far away from the bustling city of Shenyang is Keith Bath's kitchen in La Scie, on Newfoundland's Baie Verte Peninsula. 

Bath, who has been sealing for 55 years now, gave me his thoughts on the chances that this China gamble will be successful over a meal of bottled seal that was fried up. 

Keith Bath cooking bottled seal in his kitchen in La Scie, Newfoundland. (Philippe Grenier/Radio-Canada)

"It's good because China — there's a lot of people in China," said Bath, adding that the versatility of sealskin will be key in its success. 

"No doubt that they're going to sell a lot of different items, there are so many things that can be made from sealskin," said Bath. "The jackets and the boots and the wallets and the keychains." 

Back at that shop in Shenyang, you'll find they're selling all those items. 

And so far, business is picking up. 

"In the first month we sold over $80,000 worth of product," said Zhao.

Winter is coming and sales are expected to increase even more. 

"Even in the first few months we'll cover all our costs for the full year."

Adam Walsh received a fellowship from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, with support from Cathay Pacific, to travel to China this month. He will be bringing more reports in the weeks to come. 


Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He is the host and producer of the lunchtime radio program The Signal.