Amid skinning demos and pelt-handling contests, trappers focus on future

New Brunswick trappers have come out of the woods and off their trap lines to gather for the annual convention of fur harvesters in Fredericton.

Dozens of trappers are meeting throughout the day Friday and Saturday to celebrate the industry, discuss techniques and swap stories.

But the main focus is teaching.

"Education is one of the most important things that we are trying to accomplish with these kinds of events," said Mitchell Schriver, the vice-president of the New Brunswick Trappers and Fur Harvesters Federation. "We're keeping the public educated on numerous levels. We're still out there. We still exist.

"We're working hard to train people to do the best job they can do, with the pelt-handling side of it and the trapping side of it, to be the most efficient and the most humane methods."

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

Skinning demos, round-tables, trapping seminars and pelt-handling competitions run throughout the two-day event, centred on trading techniques, updating the industry for the modern age and guiding the next generation of trapper.

"I really like the outdoors," said Tyler Tapp, 12, of Tracy, who has been following his grandfather into the forest to learn to hunt and trap for the past five years.

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

Although made up mostly of trappers well past their 50s, the convention also included several children and teens. Tapp admitted that the interest in the sport with his generation is minimal.

"I don't think there's very much," he said. "Because people really like video games nowadays. They're on those."

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

But despite the assumption the sport is a relic of the past, the numbers of trappers in the province have stayed pretty much the same over the last 20 years.

Since 2001 the number of trapping licences sold each year has hovered around 1,000. It's the total value of the annual harvest that can fluctuate wildly, depending on global demand.

The estimated value of the 2016-2017 total harvest was around $380,000, according to the annual New Brunswick Furbearer report published by the province. But in 2012-2013, the estimate was close 1.7 million. It all depends on what is in demand.

"It's fashion," said Schriver. "Whatever is in style that year directly influences which critter is going to be the most valuable."

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

Coyote has been in demand in recent years, because of their inclusion in Canada Goose winter jackets. Last year, pelts went for an average of $56 each at auction, second only to bobcat, at $75 a pelt.

But for decades, the most popular pelt sold in this province by far is muskrat.

The iconic muskrat hat is known for keeping the heads of Mounties warm in the winter.

New Brunswick trappers exported more than 13,200 muskrat pelts last year, far outpacing the second-place beaver, which amounted to 5,100 pelts.

"But the market is struggling right now with most of these critters," Schriver said. "So the best we can prepare these animals the more valuable they're going to be and the more income will be coming to the trapper."

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

"It's like any other commodity. It's peaks and valleys. Right now, we've got a really good coyote market, we've got some of the best prices we've been seeing in years for coyote. Marten is doing OK, but the rest of the furs are suffering."

Schriver said the depressed demand in Asian directly affects the trappers in rural New Brunswick.

"Russia has been in trouble for a few years," he said. "China is struggling a bit. And when their economies are struggling it directly affects us here in North America and our fur prices, big time."

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

Regardless of the variety of personal and political stances on trapping today, it's the industry that Canada was built on.

Much of the country was built on the back of the beaver. With their waterproof skins, beaver pelts were in high demand and used for barter and trade when the French and British first came to North America.

"And beaver is still top three in our fur industry today," Schriver said.