The following article first appeared in the National Post, Canada, Jan. 4, 2005, and is reproduced with the author’s permission.
Body-conscious buyers drive price of pelt to record high
By James Cowan for the National Post
Boosted by softening attitudes toward the seal hunt and renewed international trade, seal pelt prices are breaking records as consumers discover sealskin is soft, tough — and exceptionally slimming.
Sealskin prices reached an all-time high two weeks ago at the Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, Ont. Buyers paid an average of $70.80 per pelt, up considerably from the 2003 average of $44.78. In the mid-nineties, a seal pelt was worth only $15.
Bernie Halloran, the owner of Vogue Furriers in St. John’s, Nfld., said sealskin’s popularity has exploded because women now demand fur coats that accentuate their figures. A sealskin coat can cost $1,300 to $4,000.
“Everyone is interested in exercise and dieting, so they don’t want to look big and bulky any more,” Mr. Halloran said.
“One of the things we’ve noticed is how slimming a seal jacket can be. It doesn’t make you look big. And if you are someone who is a plus-sized, they like it because it really doesn’t make them look big.”
The annual seal hunt in Canada remains controversial and closely regulated. In the 1970s, images of baby seals being clubbed to death and skinned alive sparked international protest. The United States banned the import of seal products in 1972 and the European Union imposed its own rules in 1983.
But opposition has weakened in recent years, thanks to strict laws forbidding the slaughter of the youngest pups and evidence suggesting the seal population has tripled since 1970. The thriving population has prompted Greenpeace and other enviromental organization to downsize their anti-hunt campaigns, although opposition still exists.
The federal government currently allows 350,000 harp seals to be killed every year during the spring hunt in Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Quebec. An additional 7,500 animals are caught in Nunavut and sold through the territorial government’s pelt purchase program.
The hunt is now the largest it has been since 1956, but Mr. Halloran believes sealskin prices would remain high even if the cull was doubled. He said international demand for seal products is huge.
“It’s appealing to a lot of people. And when you compare the number of skins that are taken every year to the population of the planet that we’re living on, it’s a very small number of skins available. People want what they can’t have,” he said.
Alan Herscovici, the executive vice-president of the Fur Council of Canada, said the ballooning prices reflect the renewed popularity of all fur products.
But he also noted seal is an ideal commodity for today’s market. Consumers no longer want heavy fur coats, meaning that mink and beaver pelts are often sheared to reduce their heft. Seal pelts are naturally light so no trimming is needed. “It’s very sleek. If you’re looking for something flat and not too bulky, it’s nice for that. And yet it’s strong, it’s durable, it’s wind proof, it’s water resistant. It has some nice qualities,” Mr. Herscovici said.
Greg Leonard, the owner of Toronto’s Furs by Leonard, said he may introduce seal products after next year’s harvest: “Nothing else on Earth looks like it.”
At the recent Fur Harvesters auction, Russian and Danish buyers dominated the bidding. And while seal products still cannot be imported to the United States, other markets are emerging.
“There’s a lot of business being done in China. Fur sales there are huge. We forget that a lot of China has a climate very similar to Canada,” Mr. Herscovici said.
Meanwhile, other countries have found other uses for the product.
“In Norway, they’ve being making boots for decades. It’s certainly super in terms of its ability to shed water,” Mr. Leonard said.