Ottawa plans to appeal ruling from World Trade Organization on EU seal ban

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Ottawa will appeal a World Trade Organization ruling that says aspects of Europe’s ban on imported seal products undermine fair trade but can be justified on “public moral concerns” for animal welfare.

While anti-sealing advocates say it’s a landmark victory that upholds the European Union embargo, the WTO points out inconsistencies that it wants fixed.

A dispute settlement panel reported Monday that exceptions under the ban for aboriginal hunts and those conducted to manage seal populations and protect fish stocks are not being fairly applied. As a consequence, those exemptions “accord imported seal products treatment less favourable” than for domestic and some other foreign products.

The panel recommends that the WTO ask the EU to bring such measures in line with its international trade commitments.

However, the report also finds that the ban “fulfils the objective of addressing the EU public moral concerns on seal welfare to a certain extent, and no alternative measure has been demonstrated to make an equivalent or greater contribution” to that goal.

The decision affects hunters in Atlantic outports and Inuit communities who say the embargo discriminates against Canadian seal products.

The federal government said in a statement that it will appeal.

“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.”

At issue was a challenge by Canada and Norway of the 28-member EU’s 2010 ban on the import and sale of seal fur, meat, blubber and other products.

Norway argued that the embargo unfairly exempts some seal products, including from some smaller-scale European hunts, but not those from its commercial hunt.

Ottawa has staunchly defended sealers, talked up the potential of other markets such as China, and deflected animal rights protests as it supported seal meat tastings for MPs and senators.

Still, the industry is a shadow of what it used to be.

The ban is hailed by animal welfare activists who say the hunt is a cruel and needless slaughter. It has also drawn Hollywood star power from the likes of actor Jude Law who want it upheld.

“This is a very important precedent that has been set which certainly supports the rights of nations around the world to ban seal product trade,” Rebecca Aldworth of Humane Society International Canada said Monday from Montreal.

“It also is an important precedent for animal welfare in general as it applies to global trade. So this is a landmark decision.”

The EU ban exempts seal products resulting from Inuit or other aboriginal hunts, along with those carried out solely to manage ocean resources.

But Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami representing about 55,000 Canadian Inuit, said those uneven exceptions mean little under a ban that essentially wipes out European markets.

“It’s a sustainable harvest,” he said Monday. “It’s not a detriment to the seal populations. And they’re basing it on public morals that, really, where do you draw the line? The poultry, pork and beef industry — they’re next.

“It’s a very maddening, saddening decision.”

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.

About 900,000 seals are hunted around the world each year, according to the European Commission. Countries that have commercial hunts include Canada, Norway, Greenland and Namibia.

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

A European Union 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.