EU bans seal product trade, Canada will go to WTO

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The EU gave the final go-ahead on Monday for a ban on imports of seal products, prompting Canada to say it would launch a challenge at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Animal rights activists protest against Canada's seal hunt, in front of the Canadian embassy in Madrid March 26, 2009. REUTERS/Andrea Comas

The ban on sales on all products from seals, including fur, meat and oil, was approved by EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels without a debate.

The move follows many years of pressure from animal rights campaigners, who say Canada’s annual seal hunt is inhumane.

The ban, which will affect the 2010 hunting season, will exempt products from traditional hunts carried out by the Inuit people in Canada and Greenland.

“The council (of ministers) adopted a regulation setting out harmonized conditions for the placing on the market of seal products,” the ministers said in a statement.

Many Europeans back the ban, opinion polls show, with animal protection groups lobbying hard by showing brutality involved in seal hunts. Some of the animals are bludgeoned over the head with a spiked club known as a hakapik.

Canada, which insisted the EU should recognize that the hunt is conducted humanely, said it would launch a WTO challenge.

“Our government has consistently defended the rights of Canadian sealers to pursue a living and we will continue to use every tool at our disposal to protect their livelihoods from this unjustified and indefensible ban,” Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said in a statement.

A European Commission spokesman said the legislation was not protectionist or discriminatory as it applied to all seals, whether they were in the EU, Canada or Norway.

“If others choose to challenge it in the WTO, then the European Commission will vigorously defend it,” he added.

Canadian Trade Minister Stockwell Day, speaking to reporters, reiterated Ottawa’s position that the sealing controversy should not affect separate talks between Canada and the European Union on setting up a free trade agreement.

The ban would affect some 4.2 million euros ($5.99 million) in annual businesses, EU diplomats have said.

Earlier this year, the European Parliament approved the ban, sharpening the proposals from the European Commission, which initially suggested a partial embargo coupled with clear labeling of products to show they contain culled seals.

Reporting by Marcin Grajewski in Brussels and David Ljunggren in Ottawa, additional reporting by Pete Harrison; editing by David Brunnstrom, Ingrid Melander and Peter Galloway