Canada seeks WTO review of EU ban on seal products

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada asked the World Trade Organization Friday to set up a panel to resolve its dispute with the European Union over the EU’s ban on trade in seal products, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said.

Sealers load up a sled with harp seal pelts on an ice floe in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Iles-de-la-Madeleine, PQ, March 23, 2009. REUTERS/Paul Darrow

The European Union closed its borders to seal products last year, when an EU court allowed the ban to proceed even though a Canadian legal challenge was still in progress.

“By moving ahead with this World Trade Organization challenge, 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,” Shea said.

Shea said the challenge would not have a bearing on ongoing negotiations on a Canada-EU free trade agreement, which is expected to affect billions of dollars worth of trade.

Canada’s seal trade with Europe was worth only several millions of dollars a year.

“Both sides have agreed that this issue will be resolved outside the free-trade agreement process, and will be resolved at the WTO,” Shea told reporters outside the House of Commons.

“What Gail Shea is not taking into account is the fact that the European Parliament has to ratify any free-trade agreement,” reacted Rebecca Aldworth, activist at Human Society International Canada.

Aldworth said the European Parliament passed the ban in the first place and takes it very seriously.

EU trade spokesman John Clancy said the European Commission would vigorously defend the law.

“This particular legislation has been carefully crafted to ensure respect for all of our international obligations, while at the same time responding to the concerns expressed by EU citizens in respect of seal products from certain hunts,” he said in Brussels.

Dispute panels normally take 12 to 18 months to deliberate. The request for a panel comes after the failure of two sets of formal consultations to resolve the issue.

Shea said the panel would help take the emotion out of a ban that she said had “no basis in fact or in science.” Animals rights activists said the harvest, which involves shooting or clubbing the animals to death, is inhumane.

“Europeans have made it clear they don’t want seal products. Even if Canada wins, it’s not like Europeans are going to go on a stampede to buy seal pelts,” said Adrian Hiel, spokesman in Brussels for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

But the issue is a live one in Canadian domestic politics in the Atlantic regions where sealing takes place, and Shea said regardless of the cost of the challenge it was a matter of principle.

Her announcement came as Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was touring Newfoundland and Labrador, where many sealers live. The Conservatives won no seats in that province in the last election in 2009 and are hoping to break through next time.

Additional reporting by Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck in Brussels; editing by Frank McGurty