[OTTAWA, ON] — Almost a year after Canada's fisheries minister announced she had landed a trade agreement to sell Canadian seal meat in China, the Chinese government has called for a review of the stalled deal.
In January 2011, then-fisheries minister Gail Shea announced from Beijing that the deal meant Canada now had access to the world's most populous country, a development that would breathe new life into the ailing industry.
However, bureaucrats with the Fisheries Department and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have confirmed the Chinese have yet to sign off on the agreement.
"China has indicated a need to review the agreement concluded in January 2011," the inspection agency said in an email to The Canadian Press. It did not release further details.
A call to the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa was not returned.
Frank Pinhorn, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association, said the Fisheries Department may have promised too much, too soon.
"In retrospect, the announcement by Gail Shea may have been a little premature," he said in an interview from St. John's. "The details had not been worked out by the time the announcement had been made."
He said that when he spoke about the issue with International Trade Minister Ed Fast six weeks ago, he was promised action.
"We told him the announcement was made last January, and we need that announcement concluded so that we can get our sealers working in the spring of 2012," Pinhorn said. "He said that he was ... going to talk to his counterparts to find it where the hang-up was."
Canada's current fisheries minister, Keith Ashfield, travelled to China last week. No one from Ashfield's department was available for an interview.
However, a senior Fisheries bureaucrat also acknowledged that Canada has hit a diplomatic snag.
"When (the Chinese) complete their review, it will hopefully permit the import into China of seal meat and oils for use there," David Balfour, an assistant deputy minister, recently told a Senate committee.
Still, Pinhorn said he's confident a final deal is in the works, and he confirmed that meat processing companies in Newfoundland have already packaged product for shipment to China.
"My computer has lit up with emails from different Chinese groups looking for the meat," he said. "All of the Newfoundland companies that process meat have agreements in principle with Chinese companies."
China is the third-largest export market of Canadian seafood products, with an average of over $300 million in exports annually.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare, an advocacy group opposed to Canada's annual seal hunt, said it has tried to obtain a copy of the January deal, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency denied the request under the Access to Information Act.
The agency, in a letter to the group, said the document was exempt from release because the content is subject to "international negotiations."
"Much fanfare was made of that deal, and the government went on record to say that seal meat could be shipped to China as soon as this past season," Michelle Cliffe, a spokeswoman for the group, said in an email. "Shortly after the deal was publicized, our China office met with officials in China who expressed displeasure with Canada's publicity on the agreement, and they indicated to us that the deal had not been signed as yet."
The Canadian sealing industry represents a tiny fraction of the East Coast's fishing industry, but the annual hunt looms large on the region's political landscape — particularly in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the majority of the country's 11,000 registered seal hunters live.
In June, the Fisheries Department confirmed that last season's annual seal hunt was one of the worst since the early 1990s, when the industry struggled to recover from a European ban on white pelts from young harp seals.
The total number of harp seals killed in the 2011 commercial slaughter was about 38,000 — less than 10 per cent of the allowable catch, set at 400,000.
The industry's latest slump was the result of poor ice conditions, as well as the European Union's decision to ban importing most seal products.
The Canadian government is challenging the ban through the World Trade Organization and the European General Court.