Prime Minister Stephen Harper is slamming the European Union's decision to proceed with a ban on seal products despite a court ruling ordering that the policy be suspended while legal challenges to it are heard.

Speaking in Charlottetown on Friday, the prime minister urged the EU to respect its own court's injunction, saying the ban is "completely unfair and a discriminatory treatment" of a Canadian industry that employs people of modest means.

harper-cp9233552

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says an EU ban on seal products is completely unfair. ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))

Seal industry workers, Harper said, are being "targeted by environmental extremists based on complete misinformation."

The Canadian government will continue to defend the sealers' interests because they respect the "same kind of humanitarian considerations" that are present in other areas of animal husbandry, Harper said.

"They should not be targetted like this, and the government of Canada will continue to speak out in their defence," said the prime minister.

According to media reports, the EU ban went into effect on Friday, but seal products sold by groups that have already filed court actions appealing the ban are exempt from it. Those groups include the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents Canada's 53,000 Inuit, and Greenland's Inuit.

The EU's General Court, based in Luxembourg, agreed on Thursday to impose a delay on the ban in order to properly consider the legal challenges, saying the delay was in the "interest of the proper administration of justice."

The EU ban already exempted trade in seal products that come from aboriginal groups, but Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said the Inuit fear their sales will still plummet when the ban comes into effect.

Last November, Canada made an official complaint to the World Trade Organization about the European ban, arguing it was a violation of the EU's trade obligations. Norway joined that complaint.

seal-hunt-protest-rtr2ckr0

Animal rights activists protest against Canada's seal hunt in front of the Canadian embassy in Madrid in April. ((Andrea Comas/Reuters))

Canada exported about $5.5 million worth of seal products to the EU in 2006, when the price of pelts peaked at over $100, but the market has been cut in half in recent years, with about $2.5 million in seal products sent to the region in 2008.

While there are about 6,000 licensed seal hunters on the East Coast, only a few hundred took part in last season's hunt. About 67,000 seals were hunted — most of them harp seals off Newfoundland — even though the catch limit was about 350,000.

The Newfoundland government says the industry brought about $24 million into the provincial economy in 2008.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press