The fisheries department is spending $2.5 million a year monitoring an Atlantic seal hunt with an export value of barely $500,000, according to confidential memos. Draft minutes of a censored Intradepartmental Discussion On Seals blamed the industry’s collapse on a gullible public: “What we’re up against regarding misinformation: ‘A person is smart, people are stupid,’” the memo said.
The Department of Fisheries has concealed data on the Atlantic hunt since 2014, when figures confirmed its value declined from a peak of $34.3 million in 2006 to less than half a million dollars. “The industry has been decimated,” Marvin Hildebrand, director general of market access for the Department of Trade, earlier told the Commons fisheries committee.
Memos obtained through Access To Information indicate field supervisors and other fisheries staff questioned the cost of monitoring the annual hunt, set to get underway next month. “The Government of Canada spends a fortune,” said a memo; “These enhancements are above and beyond the traditional monitoring carried out by fishery officers in the region and come at a significant cost. These costs are beyond the capacity to absorb from traditional budgets”.
Surveillance expenses totaling $975,000 in 2007 more than doubled to $2.5 million a year by 2009 including $1 million for a Coast Guard icebreaker; $475,000 in helicopter rentals; $400,000 for high definition long-range cameras “capable of identifying a person at one mile”; and $375,000 in staff overtime. Costs for the RCMP were not tabulated.
The Senate in 2015 passed a bill expanding the surveillance quarantine around the Atlantic hunt. Bill C-555 An Act Respecting The Marine Mammal Regulations imposes a 1.9 kilometre no-go zone around the seal hunt, restricting access to official “observers” licensed by the Department of Fisheries. The department in the past refused permit applications from photographers, the Human Society and a European Union environmental commissioner.
The bill’s passage followed disclosures the Department of Trade paid a total $857,500 in grants to the Fur Council of Canada to promote seal products in the period from 2006 to 2013. Cabinet’s 2015 budget proposed another $5.7 million in five-year funding to “secure new market access” for seal meat, oil and pelts.
Seal exports collapsed under a 2009 European Union ban on Canadian products. The World Trade Organization three years ago upheld the ban that saw the price of seal pelts fall from $100 apiece to as little as $20.
Sausages & Heart Valves
Fisheries staff wrote in memos they must maintain support for sealing despite the market collapse, and the fact funding for surveillance is deducted from other fisheries programs. “Ever consider an end for the commercial hunt? The short answer: no,” said one memo.
“There is a need for fresh public opinion research,” staff wrote; “We need more education of the Canadian public”; “We’ve been telling folks its humane for years. Is it being effective? What are the issues we need to address? Is it just the look of the hunt, or would something else assist?”
The size of the harp seal harvest in the decade from 2004 to 2014 fell from 366,000 animals to just 60,000, by official estimate. The fisheries department withheld figures from the 2015 hunt, claiming its release would compromise “the privacy and economic interests of participants in the fishery.” Officials did confirm only some 11 percent of licensed sealers were active.
The department in a secret 2015 memo earlier obtained by Blacklock’s said it had no scientific research to support Canada’s claim that seals are to blame for dwindling fish stocks. “No explicit linkage has been identified between diminishing groundfish resources and the increased presence of grey seals,” said the Memorandum For The Minister by Leslie MacLean, associate deputy minister; “While no explicit link has been established, the burgeoning grey seal population has been identified by harvesters as a possible cause for the decline, and also the cause of gear damage and depredation to fish caught in gear.”
Authorities have commissioned numerous studies to boost seal exports through alternative uses of products, including a 2014 Fur Institute study Grey Seal Management that suggested shipping seal penises to Asia as aphrodisiacs; marketing seal meat as “gourmet” meatballs; and selling intestines to food processors as sausage casings.
A 2009 fisheries memo also contemplated some medical use for seal heart valves, but cautioned “the need to be very careful here”; “Apparently grey seals have calcium deposits in their valves,” the memo said; “There is medical rebuttal to some information we had”.
By Tom Korski