Nfld. & Labrador

Seal product ban upheld on 'ethical' grounds

The Canadian government says it will appeal a World Trade Organization decison to uphold a European Union ban on seal products.

'Public moral concerns' cited in split decision by World Trade Organization

Seal product ban upheld

10 years ago
Duration 2:30
WTO panel upholds a European ban against Canadian seal products, even though it found the EU violated trade rules

The Canadian government said Monday it will appeal a World Trade Organization decision to uphold a European Union ban on seal products.

In a written decision, the WTO both supported and rejected an appeal from Canada against the 2010 ban that proved to be devastating for the country's seal hunt.

The WTO, while finding that the EU's so-called Seal Regime had violated international trade agreements, also determined that the ban was valid because of a controversial public morals clause.

The Canadian government responded quickly to say it will take advantage of a 60-day window in which to appeal the decision.

"Today the WTO panel found that the European Union's import ban on Canadian seal products violates its international trade obligations. Canada will appeal to the WTO appellate body any findings that would allow this unfair ban to continue," the government said in a statement.

"Canada remains steadfast in its position that the seal harvest is a humane, sustainable and well-regulated activity. Any views to the contrary are based on myths and misinformation, and the panel's findings should be of concern to all WTO members," said the statement, issued by International Trade Minister Ed Fast, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea, and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who is also the minister responsible for the Arctic Council and for northern development.

"Our government will continue to defend the seal hunt, an important source of food and income for coastal and Inuit communities," the statement said. 

"In appealing any findings allowing this unfair ban to continue, we stand behind the thousands of Canadians in coastal and northern communities who depend on the seal harvest to provide a livelihood for their families and to maintain their culture, traditions and quality of life."

Split decision had been expected

Canada's seal industry had been expecting something of a split decision, based on details leaked last month.

The WTO panel zeroed in on exemptions in the 2010 ban that were intended to cover the indigenous community and "hunts conducted for marine resource management purposes."

The panel found the exemptions violated the WTO's Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement in part because "these exceptions accord imported seal products treatment less favourable than that accorded to like domestic and other foreign products."

As well, the panel wrote, "such less favourable treatment does not stem exclusively from legitimate regulatory distinctions."

Despite those findings, the panel backed the ban against seal products, referring to the ongoing outrage that Canada's seal hunt triggers in Europe.

"The panel found, however, that the EU Seal Regime does not violate Article 2.2 of the [Technical Barriers to Trade] Agreement because it fulfils the objective of addressing EU public moral concerns on seal welfare to a certain extent, and no alternative measure was demonstrated to make an equivalent or greater contribution to the fulfilment of the objective," the panel wrote.

A similar decision was filed against a challenge brought against the ban by Norway, another country that allows a commercial seal hunt. 

Hypocrisy cited in public morals argument

Seal hunters, Inuit and Canadian politicians have argued that the ban is hypocritical, and that the public morals clause discriminates against one way of killing animals.

 Canadian Sealers Association president Eldred Woodford argues it's broad wording that could apply to many other industries.

"I feel very discouraged when people talk about ethics," said Woodford, who also hunts seals off Newfoundland. 

He insists new federal rules for slaughtering seals ensures the hunt is humane, noting the move was even endorsed by an independent European Union panel.

"The Canadian seal hunt is a well-managed hunt and the harvesting of seals is considerably better, if not the best hunt of wild harvested animals in the world."

But animal welfare groups say the Canadian government is waging a losing battle.

"I think, in a way, it's an exercise in futility," said Sheryl Fink, who is with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "I would much prefer, as a Canadian, to see the government use our tax dollars to help find an alternative solution to help sealers out of the industry."

Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami representing about 55,000 Canadian Inuit, said in advance of Monday's decision that the EU's approach is wrong-headed and "Orwellian."

"They're basing it on public morals and, when you do that, then you're in danger of all the other industries being banned in the same way. I mean, who's to say what's more cruel? Industrialized agriculture? The poultry, pork and beef industry?

"Who draws the line?"

Although the Canada's seal hunt is much smaller than it was years ago, it continues to generate controversy, with groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society of the United States organizing annual campaigns against it. 

The commercial seal hunt off Newfoundland last spring landed about 91,000 harp seals, up from 69,000 the year before but far short of the federal quota of 400,000.

Some countries ban seal item imports

About 900,000 seals are hunted around the world each year, according to the European Commission.

Other countries with commercial hunts include Greenland and Namibia.

Countries with bans on imported seal products include the U.S., Mexico, Russia and Taiwan.

An EU court last year upheld the EU embargo, saying it's valid because it fairly harmonizes the EU market while protecting the economic and social interests of Inuit communities.

Either side has 60 days to appeal Monday's findings from the WTO dispute panel. 

With files from The Canadian Press