STRASBOURG, France – The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to ban imports of seal products, including fur coats and even some omega-3 pills, in an effort to force Canada to end its annual seal hunt, the world’s largest.
The Canadian government reacted sharply to the move, with Trade Minister Stockwell Day promising that Ottawa will challenge the ban and take the 27-nation bloc to the world trade body if the new law does not exempt Canada.
The strain in relations came on the eve of a key summit between Canada and the European Union in Prague where they are expected to launch negotiations on a wide-ranging free trade agreement.
The European Parliament voted to endorse a bill that said commercial seal hunting, notably in Canada, is “inherently inhumane.” EU governments still need to back the law, but officials called that a formality and said the ban is expected to take effect in October.
The EU ban will apply to all products and processed goods derived from seals, including their skins — which are used to make fur coats, bags and adorn clothing — as well as meat, oil blubber, organs and seal oil, which is used in some omega-3 pills.
Animal rights activists, Inuit seal hunters, fur traders and authorities from Canada and Greenland lobbied hard ahead of the vote. Activists call the hunt barbaric, while the others said it provided crucial jobs and food for villagers in isolated northern communities.
Canada’s East Coast seal hunt is the largest in the world, killing an average of 300,000 harp seals annually. The EU bill targeted the Canadian hunt because of the size of the annual slaughter and the way seals are killed — either clubbed or shot with rifles. In the past, they have also been killed with spiked clubs, or hakapiks.
Gail Shea, the Canadian minister of fisheries, called the EU parliament’s decision biased and insisted that Canada’s hunt was “guided by rigorous animal welfare principles.”
One-third of the world’s trade in seal products passes through EU countries. Last year, Canada exported seal products — pelts, meat and oils — worth around euro3.5 million ($4.7 million U.S.) to the EU.
Animal rights advocates were euphoric over the vote.
“(It’s) a historic victory … to stop the commercial slaughter of seals around the world,” said Mark Glover, head of Humane Society International.
On the other side, Canadian fur traders and Inuit hunters who joined together in a failed effort to avert the ban urged Ottawa not to pursue new trade talks with the EU.
National Inuit leader Mary Simon said the vote will cause economic despair in native areas in Canada’s north and said the exemption for their communities will do little to help if the markets for seal products have been effectively destroyed.
“If there’s no market we can’t sell our products,” Simon said, adding that Inuit hunt seals for food, clothing and income. “It’s all tied together. If you can’t sell the product you’re not going to have an income and therefore you can’t buy the equipment to go hunting and it affects your food source,” Simon said.
Dion Dakins, managing director of NuTan Furs Inc., of Catalina, Newfoundland, criticized the ban, saying it “has been based on complete falsehoods.”
“I can’t imagine being able to do trade agreements or work forward with a group of countries that can’t honor their obligations under the world trade organization,” he said.
The new EU rule offers narrow exemptions so Inuit communities from Canada, Greenland and elsewhere can continue traditional hunts but bars them from large-scale trading of their pelts and other seal goods in Europe.
Another exemption will permit noncommercial, “small-scale” hunts to manage seal populations, but seal products from those hunts will not be allowed to enter the EU either.
Inuit groups said the restrictions will spell disaster for their communities.
“(The ban) is definitely going to impact the lives of the Inuit,” Joshua Kango, head of the Iqaluit, Nunavut-based Amarok hunters and trappers association, told The Associated Press. “We don’t have any other way to survive economically.”
Despite the Canadian government’s opposition to Tuesday’s vote, Day, the country’s trade minister, said Canada would not let it get in the way of a broader free trade agreement with the EU.
But Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Fisheries Minister Tom Hedderson told the AP it would be embarrassing if Day and Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to a trade deal within days of the European Union’s support for a seal ban.
“The EU just denied us access to their markets. Isn’t this what this trade deal is about?” Hedderson said. “We’re talking anywhere from $30 to $60 million of an industry. If that’s peanuts to Minister Day, so be it.”
Arlene McCarthy, who chairs the European Parliament’s market and consumer protection committee, said a majority of Europeans were against the seal hunt, and for EU lawmakers that took precedence over the wishes of sealers and Inuit groups.
“While we of course have sympathy for those particular groups of people, the reality is that we sit here in the European Parliament and that millions of our citizens would like us to do the right thing and ban the cruel trade,” she said.
Seals are also hunted in Norway, Namibia, Sweden, Finland, Britain and Russia.
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