Nfld. & Labrador

Sluggish start to annual seal hunt

The largest part of Canada's seal hunt opened Monday, but on a pessimistic note, as sealers say prices remain too low to turn a profit.
The largest part of the annual seal hunt opened Monday amid slumping demand, poor prices and a European Union ban. (CBC )

The largest part of Canada's seal hunt opened Monday, but on a pessimistic note, as sealers say prices remain too low to turn a profit.

"You just can't go at something and not make no money," said Dwight Spence of Port au Choix on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula.

Spence, who said fewer than a dozen vessels left his home port this weekend for the hunt, decided to stay home for the fourth season in a row. The hunt opens in much of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and along a sealing area historically known as The Front, off northeastern Newfoundland.

With top-quality pelts fetching only about $21 each — a fraction of what was paid a decade ago — sealers are also up against a European Union challenge, stagnant demand in other markets and spotty ice conditions.

"The prices that's there now, it's just not feasible," Spence told CBC News.

Dwight Spence of Port au Choix said he fears a growing seal population will damage other stocks. (CBC )

The cost of fuel and supplies, he said, are high enough that a sealing vessel would need to kill between 3,000 and 4,000 harp seals to turn a profit. Spence said it is extremely hard to meet that number, even though seals are plentiful.

The Canadian government is developing new markets for seal meat in China, but those plans have not yet been finalized and will not affect this year's hunt. Canada is also now formally challenging the EU ban.

"It's still hanging over our heads yet," Spence said of the ban.

Priority shifting

Some fishermen have said they will dedicate their resources to the more lucrative crab harvest, which is time-sensitive because quality can be ruined as waters warm in the late spring and early summer.

Meanwhile, Spence said the seal herd continues to grow as the hunt is stymied. He said he would be hunting for seals only to help control the population.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans estimates the harp seal population is about nine million animals, or about four times its size from the 1970s.

"You're only just going at it for the sport and try to kill off some of the seals, that's around, to get rid of some," Spence said.

"If it keeps going the way it is, nobody's going to kill them. They're going to destroy everything that's in the water."