MONCTON, N.B. (CP) - Federal Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn says Canada will push back against negative messages about the annual East Coast seal hunt, but it will not back down.
Some processors attending a New Brunswick fisheries meeting on Saturday said they are worried they may lose customers because of the controversy and protest surrounding the seal hunt.
Hearn said the Canadian government is working hard to counter anti-sealing campaigns, with the message that the seal hunt is humane and sustainable.
"We have to make sure that people who ask questions about the hunt are aware of the truth and not what they see from some group still going around showing 20-year-old video of sealers clubbing whitecoats," Hearn told reporters during a break in the two-day fisheries summit in Moncton, N.B.
"Some of these people say the herd is disappearing. When we had the large northern cod stocks some years ago we only had two million seals. We have one per cent of those cod stocks today and we have six million seals."
But some people in the Atlantic fishing industry are worried Canada may be losing the public relations battle.
Crab processor Paul Boudreau of Tracadie, N.B., said in the last four or five weeks processors have received inquiries from customers asking for guarantees that they have nothing to do with the annual seal hunt.
"In the past two weeks, I received two different inquiries and I had to write letters to these customers saying that, no, our company, McGraw Sea Food, is not involved in the hunt," Boudreau said.
"This is a serious problem from a Canadian point of view because Newfoundland and Labrador companies are involved. This is coming from the market, so we don't really know what the final result will be."
Opponents of the seal hunt in the United States have mounted boycotts against Canadian seafood in restaurants across the country. As well, they are continuing their efforts to encourage countries to close their doors to seal products.
The European Union is being pressured to ban the products, but has decided to first conduct an in-depth study of the seal hunt to establish whether it is humane or not.
The British government said recently it will press its neighbours in the European Union for a total ban on the import of seal products.
Hearn said Canada is joining with other sealing countries, including Russia and Norway, to promote the hunt and seal products.
"So collectively we're doing push back," he said.
"We are getting out the information and we are encouraging people to come and see for themselves and then make up their minds."
However, people who do want to see the hunt for themselves may have a more difficult time this year.
Hearn said he will decide soon whether to stiffen regulations for hunt observers, possibly by increasing the exclusion zone around sealers from 10 to 20 metres.
That wider zone will make it much more difficult for observers to see what hunters are doing on the ice.
Hearn said he will announce the quota for this year's hunt within the next few days. The hunt is expected to begin by late March.
Last year's quota was about 335,000 seals.
"There are concerns that we may be losing some of the seals," Hearn said, pointing to last year's poor ice conditions.
"If that's the case, we'll adjust the quota this year. If not, we're OK where we are."
More than 6,000 Atlantic Canadians - most of them from Hearn's home province of Newfoundland and Labrador - were actively involved in the hunt last year.
Copyright © 2007 Canadian Press