Newfoundland and Labrador is urging Ottawa to push back against a reported seal-pelt ban in Russia and two other countries, acknowledging that the loss of market access would have "huge implications" for the sealing industry.
Earlier this week, anti-sealing groups distributed a document that seemed to indicate Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan had told the World Trade Organization they would ban harp seal pelts from their countries.
On Friday, St. John's urged the federal government to push back hard, through the WTO if necessary, but also through direct appeals to the countries' leaders.
"In the interest of co-operative trade relations, and informed decision making, the governments of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan should consult with Canada and other sealing nations on this serious international trade issue," Darin King, Newfoundland and Labrador's Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture, said in a statement.
Ed Fast, Minister of International Trade, issued a statement on Friday saying Ottawa is committed to defending Canada's sealing industry.
"I have instructed Canadian officials to actively engage with their international counterparts to convey Canada's concerns over these proposed restrictions and to examine options for ensuring continued market access for Canada's sealing industry," he said.
"The Atlantic and Northern seal hunts in Canada are humane, sustainable and well-regulated activities that provide an important source of food and income for thousands of sealers and their families."
The reported ban would be similar to that undertaken by the European Union – a measure Ottawa is fighting at the WTO. But losing access to Russia would have greater effect. The strength of its market, which is thought to take most of the seal pelts produced by the controversial harvest off Canada's eastern shores, was talked up by pro-sealers seeking to dismiss the effect of the EU ban.
In his statement Friday afternoon, Mr. King acknowledged the harm such a ban would cause.
"It seems these governments may have been misled about the Canadian sealing industry by radical and unethical anti-harvesting organizations," Mr. King said. "This is a very serious matter with huge implications for the industry."
The request for Ottawa to take action raises the prospect of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government trying to win support from authoritarian leaders of a harvest that has given the country a black eye in the minds of many.
In 2009, Russia banned the killing of all seals under one year old. It continues a hunt targeting older seals. Canada permits sealers to take pups once they have lost their white coats, which occurs when they are between two and three weeks old.
Animal rights groups have praised news of the Russian ban as evidence of global momentum against Canada's seal harvest.
"It clearly spells the end of Canadian sealing as so many other trade bans have done over recent years," said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Humane Society International/Canada, earlier this week.
She repeated a call her organization has made regularly: for the federal government to offer a one-time buyout for people in Canada's commercial sealing industry.
Rob Cahill, executive director of the Fur Council of Canada, has been left scratching his head.
"In fact, the traders this year have been trading seal furs into Russia and have not heard anything."
With reports from Gloria Galloway