The global recession, plummeting pelt prices and the prospect of a European ban on seal products dramatically lowered the number of seals killed in this year's hunt, Canadian officials said Thursday.
About 70,000 harp seals were hunted this year out of a commercial quota of 273,000 animals, said Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokesman Scott Cantin. The seven-month long hunt ended earlier this week.
The tally marks a significant drop from last year's hunt, in which 217,857 harp seals were hunted out of a commercial quota of 275,000.
Frank Pinhorn of the Canadian Sealers Association said many hunters decided not to take part this year because pelt prices have fallen to 14 Canadian dollars ($12) from a high of over CA$100 ($88) per pelt several years ago.
"Anything under CA$35 ($31) would be low and they won't participate because they won't recover their costs," he said.
The industry is also carrying about 60,000 pelts from the previous year in a market that is drying up due to the recession, the depressed value of the Russian ruble and growing international distaste for seal products.
Sealers are also grappling with the near certainty that the European Union will ban importing seal products, which could take effect in October.
Animal rights activists, Inuit seal hunters, fur traders and authorities from Canada and Greenland lobbied hard ahead of the vote. Activists call the hunt barbaric, while proponents say it provides crucial jobs and food for villagers in isolated northern communities.
Canada's East Coast seal hunt is the largest in the world, killing an average of 300,000 harp seals annually, before this year's drop.
The EU bill targeted the Canadian hunt because of the size of the annual slaughter and the way seals are killed — either clubbed or shot with rifles. In the past, they have also been killed with spiked clubs, or hakapiks.
Pinhorn said he believed the drop is only temporary because people in the industry are hoping to expand the market by using seal products for different purposes, such as seal heart valves for medical procedures or omega-3 products made from seal oil.
"Have we given up on the seal industry? Not a chance," he said. "The seal industry will come back."