Canada to take seal ban fight to WTO

OTTAWA: Canada said it would take its fight for the country's seal hunting industry to the World Trade Organization, vowing to appeal a European Union decision to ban imported seal products.

"We are very disappointed with this ruling. We believe strongly this violates the World Trade Organization guidelines," International Trade Minister Stockwell Day told reporters, insisting the hunt is "humanitarian, scientific and follows environmental rules of sustainability."

In a decision taken without debate, EU foreign ministers earlier adopted a ban on seal products from Canada, ruling the goods cannot be marketed in the 27 EU nations. Three countries -- Denmark, Romania and Austria -- abstained with all others voting in favor.

"It is in our view inappropriate that a trade decision is taken which is not based on the science, and for that reason, we're announcing that we'll be pursuing an appeal of this vote today," Day said.

Only products "from hunts traditionally conducted by Inuit and other indigenous communities to ensure their subsistence" would be permitted under the ban, according to a statement.

But Inuit communities nonetheless called the ban "an abomination," saying it "directly attacks cultures, communities, and livelihoods that represent a basic means of living for many here in Canada."

Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and the national leader of Inuit in Canada, said the ban was based on "groundless accusations influenced by animal rights propaganda campaigns."

Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said the regulation "specifically prohibits the marketing of products resulting from sustainable and humane commercial hunts," saying the vote was a violation of the EU's WTO commitments.

Canada, she said, had "expected the EU to act on science instead of misinformation" from the likes of "professional anti-seal-hunt lobbyists."

The European Commission denied the accusations, and defended the ban as both appropriate and legal.

"The legislation has neither protectionist intent nor effect. It is designed to give voice to a genuinely held concern of EU citizens," said Lutz Gullner, a spokesman for Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton.

"It applies to all seals, whether they are in the EC or in Canada or Norway and is entirely non-discriminatory."

The move concerned products derived from all species of seals and includes fur skins, organs, meat, oil and blubber, which can be used in cosmetics and medicine. It is due to take effect next spring, once nations have implemented the legislation.

The Canadian government said WTO consultations would begin 60 days after Canada submits its request. The demand, it said, would be made "in the coming weeks," after reviewing the final decision from the European Council of Ministers.

"If others choose to challenge it in the WTO, then the European Commission will vigorously defend it, as it does with all EC legislation," Gullner said.

On Sunday, Canada had urged the EU to reconsider the ban, arguing it imposes regulations ensuring humane hunting inside its borders.

In July 2007, Canada launched WTO talks with Belgium and the Netherlands about the two countries' embargo on seal products, but the consultations broke off with no resolution.

Inuit spokesperson Violet Ford said the community would continue to hunt seal and might consider legal action.

"All Inuit from Russia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland are standing in solidarity against the EU on this," said Ford, vice-president of international affairs at the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Canada.

"Hunting sustainably and humanely is something we have done for thousands of years and continue to do so," she said.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council is a non-governmental organization that represents about 150,000 Inuit.

Around 6,000 Canadians take part in seal hunting each year along the Atlantic coast.

Ottawa authorizes the slaughter of 338,000 seals per season, and says the survival of the species is not in danger. But the popularity of seal hunting has dropped, along with a decline in demand for seal products.

Seal hunters cashed in about 10 million dollars from the 2009 hunt, said Day, adding that 25 percent of the sales usually come from exporting products to Europe.

Canada, Greenland and Namibia kill 60 percent of the 900,000 seals slain each year. Other seal-hunting countries include Norway, Iceland, Russia and the United States.