In a long-awaited decision that may have significant consequences for Canadian sealers, the European Union on Wednesday moved to ban imports of products derived from seals that are inhumanely killed.
It's unclear exactly what the EU's standard for humane killing would be, but seal products from countries that "practise hunting methods that involve unnecessary pain," also referred to as "cruel hunting," will not be allowed into the 27-nation bloc, EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas said in a statement.
The European Commission announced the proposal Wednesday, but the measures must receive final approval from the EU's executive and legislative branches.
Dimas said the rules will make special allowances for products from traditional Inuit sealers.
The EU has been under increased pressure from animal rights groups and legislators at the European parliament to take action over the seal hunt, which they believe is cruel and should be stopped. Sealers say the hunt is humane, sustainable and an important income source.
For months, the EU had been weighing its options. Some campaigners were calling for a ban on seal-product imports from Canada and other countries that have annual seal culls.
Animal welfare groups reacted to Wednesday's announcement with cautious optimism.
"European politicians are doing for Canadians what our own politicians will not — that is, listen to the majority opposition to this cruel, unsustainable and unnecessary hunt," said Sheryl Fink, an Ontario-based researcher with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn said Wednesday that Canada expects its "humanely conducted hunt" will be exempt from any ban.
"Once again, we would like to caution European decision-makers: adopting broad regulations to ban products from a responsible, sustainable and well-regulated hunt is a slippery slope," Hearn said in a statement.
"To bow to misinformation and emotional rhetoric in restricting the trade of humanely harvested animals would set a dangerous precedent for all wild hunts."
Door still open for exports
The decision to only block inhumanely obtained seal products leaves the door open for sealers and hunters on Canada's East Coast to export to Europe — but with stricter, as yet unspecified conditions.
A report last year from the European Food Safety Authority mentioned several possible types of unnecessary suffering in the seal hunt, including skinning animals while they are conscious and trapping seals under water to kill them by drowning.
The report hinted at what the EU might consider to be humane sealing methods, suggesting that it would involve, as a minimum, shooting or clubbing seals first and then checking to ensure they're dead before bleeding and skinning them.
Canadian regulations already require that seals be confirmed dead before a hunter can begin skinning.
Denis Longuépée, a spokesman for a Magdalen Islands seal hunting association that advocates on behalf of sealers in eastern Quebec, said he wasn't perturbed by the EU's proposed regulations because the East Coast seal hunt is already generally humane.
"Independent veterinary associations, the government and some people say that the way we kill the seal at this moment is very humane," Longuépée said.
In Canada, seal hunting takes place mostly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is allowing hunters to kill up to 275,000 harp seals this year.
Top prices for pelts have dropped considerably, from $105 per skin in 2006 to an expected $33 this year, according to NuTan Furs Inc., a Newfoundland seal-product processor.
MP Peter Stoffer, the fisheries critic for the New Democratic Party, told CBC News that the fact that the seal hunt happens outdoors makes it easy for opponents to marshal support.
"What you've got is blue sky, white ice and red blood. That's a very hard image to combat," Stoffer said in an interview in St. John's.
"If they're concerned about the method of killing seals, then they've got it completely wrong. I can go to their abattoirs in France and see a whole bunch of things that aren't pretty as well," he said.
"The taking of any animal is never a pretty sight."