EU takes aim at Canada, bans seal products

By: AP
By: AP
After three years of intense lobbying and debate, the European Parliament voted Tuesday to ban imports of seal products, including fur coats and even some omega-3 pills, in an effort to force Canada to end its annual seal hunt.

Courtesy: NOAA

STRASBOURG, France (AP) -- After three years of intense lobbying and debate, the European Parliament voted Tuesday to ban imports of seal products, including fur coats and even some omega-3 pills, in an effort to force Canada to end its annual seal hunt.

The Canadian government reacted sharply to the move, with Trade Minister Stockwell promising that Ottawa "will challenge the ban" and take the 27-nation bloc to the world trade body if the new law does not exempt Canada.

The strain in relations came on the eve of a key summit between Canada and the European Union in Prague where they are expected to launch negotiations on a wide-ranging free trade agreement.

The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to endorse a bill that said commercial seal hunting, notably in Canada, is "inherently inhumane." EU governments still need to back the law, but officials called that a formality and said the ban is expected to take effect in October.

The EU ban will apply to all products and processed goods derived from seals, including their skins - which are used to make fur coats, bags and adorn clothing - as well as meat, oil blubber, organs and seal oil, which is used in some omega-3 pills.

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 the others said it provided crucial, sustainable 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. Curbing the Canadian hunt was the focus of EU bill because of the size of the annual cull 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.

Gail Shea, the Canadian minister of fisheries, called the EU parliament's decision biased and insisted that Canada's hunt was "guided by rigorous animal welfare principles."

One-third of the world's trade in seal products passes through EU countries. Last year, Canada exported seal products - pelts, meat and oils - worth around euro3.5 million ($4.7 million U.S.) to the EU.

Animal rights advocates were euphoric over the vote.

"(It's) a historic victory ... to stop the commercial slaughter of seals around the world," said Mark Glover, head of Humane Society International.

On the other side, Canadian fur traders and Inuit hunters who joined together in a failed effort to avert the ban urged Ottawa not to pursue new trade talks with the EU.

"This whole trade ban has been based on complete falsehoods," said Dion Dakins, managing director of NuTan Furs Inc., of Catalina, Newfoundland. "I can't imagine being able to do trade agreements or work forward with a group of countries that can't honor their obligations under the world trade organization."

The new EU rule will offer narrow exemptions so Inuit communities from Canada, Greenland and elsewhere can continue traditional hunts but bars them from large-scale trading of their pelts and other seal goods in Europe.

Another exemption will permit noncommercial, "small-scale" hunts to manage seal populations, but seal products from those hunts will not be allowed to enter the EU either.

Inuit groups said the restrictions will spell disaster for their communities.

"(The ban) is definitely going to impact the lives of the Inuit," Joshua Kango, head of the Iqaluit, Nunavut-based Amarok hunters and trappers association, told The Associated Press. "We don't have any other way to survive economically."

Arlene McCarthy, who chairs the European Parliament's market and consumer protection committee, said a majority of Europeans were against the seal hunt, and for EU lawmakers that took precedence over the wishes of sealers and Inuit groups.

"While we of course have sympathy for those particular groups of people, the reality is that we sit here in the European Parliament and that millions of our citizens would like us to do the right thing and ban the cruel trade," she said.

Seals are also hunted in Norway, Namibia, Sweden, Finland, Britain and Russia.

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