China agrees to buy Canadian seal meat

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada’s seal industry has found a new market in China for products that animal rights groups have succeeded in getting banned from much of Europe, officials said on Wednesday.

China has agreed to allow its consumers to buy seal meat and oil from Canada, and the deal could pave the way for future purchases of products such as seal pelts, Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said.

“The Chinese market holds great potential for the Canadian seal industry,” Shea said in a statement from Beijing, where she was on a trade mission.

Although sales of seal meat and oil are less lucrative to hunters than pelt sales, the deal is expected to offset some of the financial impact of the European Union’s ban on seal products.

Seal oil is used in a variety of products including Omega 3 supplements.

The EU has closed its borders to seal products at the request of animal rights groups, who argue the seal hunt off Canada’s Atlantic Coast is unnecessarily cruel to the animals.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare dismissed the trade deal with China as “political,” and said it doubted Chinese would actually buy seal products.

“IFAW believes that Chinese consumers, like those in the European Union, will not condone the horrific slaughter of seal pups and will reject meat and oil that is tainted by cruelty,” the group said.

Canadian sealers, many of whom are native Inuit, say the allegations of cruelty are based on hunting practices that have not been used in years, and say the EU’s ban is an attack on a traditional way of life.

Canada’s main seal hunt takes place in March and April on ice floes off the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

National Inuit leader Mary Simon applauded the agreement, saying it will help the industry as it fights to have the European ban overturned. Canada has challenged the ban before the World Trade Organization.

“I’m pleased that the Chinese government has seen through the myths and distortions that have been widely disseminated by animal rights extremists in other parts of the world, such as Europe,” Simon said.

Canada has said the EU ban affects around C$5.4 million of ($5.5 million) business. Officials did not estimate the potential value of seal product sales to China.

China is already Canada’s third largest export market for seafood products, according to Canadian officials.

Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson