EU Foreign Ministers Approve Ban of Seal Products

29 July 2009

EU foreign ministers agreed to ban the import of seal products at a meeting on Monday, amid pressure from domestic constituents. The ban is a victory for animal rights groups but has drawn strong criticism from Canada, which believes the embargo on seal imports violates international trade rules. Canada's annual seal hunt is the largest in the world and is an integral part of some coastal Canadian economies, generating US$ 2.4 million per year.

The ban would apply to all goods that contain seal products, such as fur, meat, and omega-3 diet supplements made from seal oil. However, the regulation contains an exemption for seal products produced from the traditional hunts of Inuit communities in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia. The law also creates an exemption for non-commercial hunts to control seal populations, but products derived from these hunts are not allowed to enter the EU. The ban does not prohibit shipment of seal products through EU member countries.

No countries voted against the proposal in Monday's meeting, although Denmark, Romania and Austria abstained.  Austria said that it wants to see even tougher regulations on seal products. The EU parliament voted 550-49 to pass the ban in May (see Bridges Weekly, 20 May 2009,

The announcement of the vote drew a quick reaction from Ottawa, which says the ban is unwarranted and plans to raise the issue with the WTO's Dispute Settlement Body (DSB). Canada will request consultations at the DSB, a step that will initiate bilateral consultations on the matter. If those talks fail to produce a resolution after 60 days, Ottawa will have the right to launch an official appeal, asking the international trade court to rule on the issue.

On the eve of the EU vote, Canada's trade minister, Stockwell Day, and fisheries and oceans minister, Gail Shea, urged the EU ministers to reject the ban. "Canada's seal hunt is lawful, sustainable and humane, and the Government of Canada has worked hard to defend Canada's position internationally over the last few years," they said in the statement issued on Sunday.

"Canada has clearly lived up to its obligations, and our position remains that any ban on a humanely conducted hunt such as Canada's is completely without cause," they added.

Day and Shea accused the EU of pandering to political pressure. Lobby groups make emotional appeals by incorrectly portraying white coat seal pups as the targets of the hunt, Shea explained, but these animals have not been hunted in Canada for two decades.

"And it is [in] our view inappropriate that a trade decision is taken which is not based on the science," Day said. "We want it made very clear that there should be a clause which reflects any country that is following the humanitarian, scientific and environmental guidelines established by the EU themselves, should in fact be exempted from this particular ban."

The EU doesn't deny that the ban was driven by public demand. "The legislation was proposed because we had received tens of thousands of letters from concerned European citizens about the way the seals were killed," EU spokewoman Barbara Helfferich told Canada's CBC News. "We have always argued that the killing methods must be humane."

Animal rights groups are pleased with the result. "There is a wonderful sense of accomplishment today after years of hard work," said Lesley O'Donnell, Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's EU office. "We expect commercial sealing to continue its inevitable decline until it is wiped out once and for all."

ICTSD reporting; "Canada to launch protest against seal product ban," CTV, 27 July 2009; "Seal product ban approved by EU," CBC NEWS, 27 July 2009.

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