A group of B.C. First Nations and commercial fishers is pushing the federal government to relax restrictions on seal hunting, allowing them to harvest seal meat that can be sold to restaurants.

The Pacific Balance Pinniped Society wants to see First Nations along the B.C. coast awarded the ability to kill seals and sea lions for commercial sale.

Ken Pearce, the group’s founder, says he sees a business opportunity in the proposal, as well as an environmental benefit.

On the business side, Pearce says a West Coast commercial seal hunt could employ up to 4,000 people. On the ecological front, he says it would restore “historical balance” by drastically reducing the number of harbour seals off the B.C. coast.

Provincial statistics show that the harbour seal population is above 100,000 – more than 10 times what it was in the 1970s.

“There [are] far too many pinnipeds eating too many salmon,” Thomas Sewid, the group’s vice-president, told CTV Vancouver.

Not everyone is on board with that argument. University of British Columbia marine mammal research director Andrew Trites says the large number of seals and sea lions plays a key role in sustaining the higher levels of the food chain.

“Our transient killer whale population is entirely dependent on eating seals and sea lions,” he said.

“If you remove 50 per cent of [seals and sea lions], we’re going to cause, potentially, transient killer whales to starve.”

Trites also questions how the international community might respond to Canada opening a new frontier in its seal hunt.

“Is the world really going to stand by as we kill the seals so that people in San Francisco can eat them at the finest restaurants?” he said.

Canada’s existing seal hunting practices have drawn attention and condemnation from outside the country. The Humane Society of the United States describes the seal hunt as “the largest slaughter of marine mammals on the planet,” and it has also been criticized by celebrities such as Paul McCartney, Pamela Anderson, Ryan Reynolds and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Harp seal hunting is currently allowed in parts of Atlantic Canada from mid-November until mid-May. Seals are mainly killed for their pelts, which are often sold abroad. A year-round seal hunt is permitted in the Arctic, where the pinnipeds are also used as a food source. The federal government estimates that 66,800 harp seals and 1,612 grey seals were harvested in the country in 2016, the latest year for which data is available.

Sewid says he expects there to be strong consumer demand for seal meat, which he describes as “the new beef of the sea.”

Representatives of his group were scheduled to meet with the federal government on Thursday.