Costly Seal Hunt Program OK

Cabinet will not scale back its monitoring of the Atlantic seal hunt though costs to taxpayers are five times the value of the commercial harvest, says Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo. A confidential department memo noted the hunt is so expensive it’s impacted other fisheries programs.

“I fully support the seal hunt,” Tootoo said in an interview. “You can tell I’m wearing a nice sealskin tie. It’s important to the economy out east.”

The department is spending $2.5 million a year monitoring the hunt, according to memos obtained through Access To Information. Revenues from the harvest have fallen to less than $500,000 annually due to a 2009 European Union ban on Canadian seal products.

“There are strict rules in place for monitoring it and we’re doing what we have to do to ensure it’s done properly,” said Tootoo, who defended the expense as an environmental necessity. “If someone spills oil in the water and it costs millions to clean it up, it may only be a little bit – but you still have to do it. There are rules in place that we have to follow, and we’ll ensure we continue to do that.”

Costs of monitoring include $1 million a year for a Coast Guard icebreaker; $475,000 for helicopter rentals; $400,000 for long-range cameras; and $375,000 a year in staff overtime. Expenses do not include costs incurred by the RCMP in monitoring the annual hunt that gets underway in March.

Fisheries staff in a 2009 memo Funding Pressure Business Case said costs of the hunt were so high they’ve required funds to be drawn from conservation programs. “This has a tremendous impact on relatively small detachment budgets,” read the memo, written by the department’s conservation and protection branch.

“These costs are beyond the capacity of conservation and protection to absorb from traditional budgets and this level of surveillance cannot be maintained without additional funding allocations,” the memo said; “That ends up significantly impacting the ability of the detachments to carry out patrols in other fisheries given the budget pressures.”

“There has been a significant increase in costs,” staff wrote; “Teams deployed via dedicated icebreakers and helicopters as well as the investment in sophisticated remote observation cameras is required”; “These enhancements are above and beyond the traditional monitoring carried out by fishery officers in the regions and come at a significant cost.”

Seal Meat On The Menu

Disclosure of seal hunt expenses came as the Senate yesterday resumed debate on a private bill to proclaim a  yearly National Seal Products Day. “The commercial seal hunt is down but it is not out,” said Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette (Liberal-Que.), the bill’s sponsor.

“Canada should not be embarrassed about the seal hunt,” Hervieux-Payette told the Senate; “The disappearance of a market for seal products will never result in the end of the hunt, and those who claim otherwise are trying to manipulate public opinion.”

The value of the Atlantic hunt peaked at $34.3 million in 2006, with 348,000 seals landed. Sales fell to $1.3 million by 2010 and are now under $500,000, according to the trade department.

Bill S-208 An Act Respecting National Seal Products Day would honour the hunt every May 20, coinciding with the European Union observance of Maritime Day. “There is a lot of potential,” Hervieux-Payette said; “Seal fur is used for winter coats”; “Seal meat is even available at the Parliamentary restaurant at request during the seal hunt.”

The Senate fisheries committee in a 2012 report recommended that cabinet add seal oil as a supplement to the Canada Food Guide, and develop markets for seal products as pet food and waterproof clothing. The report Sustainable Management of Grey Seal Populations noted there has “never been a well-developed and viable market for grey seals”.

By Dale Smith

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