Monday, March 2, 2009

European Union vote could lead to tight ban on Canadian seal products

The Canadian Press - Monday, March 2, 2009

The European Union took another step toward a ban on Canadian seal products Monday as a parliamentary committee rejected a proposal to label the products instead.

A vote by the EU parliament's internal market and consumer protection committee endorsed a bill that would impose a ban on the import of all seal products to the 27-member union. It voted 25-7 in favour of the ban.

The same bill granted an exemption to Canada's Inuit to continue to trade seal products "for cultural, educational or ceremonial purposes."

The decision drew immediate reaction from those for and against Canada's East Coast hunt, which is the largest in the world. Over the last three years the total allowable catch has been set at between 270,000 and 335,000 seals annually.

"I'm very disappointed that elected officials in Europe are going against World Trade Organization rulings and legal opinions," said Rob Cahill of the Canadian Fur Institute. "It's not over, but I think this is a real setback."

Cahill said it was clear that years of lobbying by anti-sealing and animal rights groups in North America and Europe had gained traction with a number of politicians.

"Those campaigns are very strong in Europe ... and I think it's just the culmination of many years of that movement coming into place," he said.

Meanwhile, those opposed to the hunt were heralding the news as a strong indication the battle is being won.

"It's a fantastic step forward in the campaign to stop commercial seal slaughters around the world," said Rebecca Aldworth, director of Humane Society International Canada.

She said the committee vote "will carry a lot of weight" when the EU assembly votes on a bill, which could come as early as April.

In order to become law, the bill must be approved by the entire EU assembly and EU governments.

The committee decision follows an intense lobbying effort in recent weeks by Canadian politicians looking to convince the European body that the commercial harp seal hunt is humane.

The committee endorsed plan brands seal hunting as "inherently inhumane" and calls for the EU to heed public calls for a ban.

"It's clear they haven't taken into account information from Canada to the contrary of some of the things that they (opponents) continue to say as being facts about the hunting of seals," said Cahill.

Federal officials have estimated an EU ban would chop half the annual value of the hunt, which currently stands at $13 million.

Nordic EU countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland have opposed such a ban, and legal experts say it could violate world trade rules. Seals are also hunted in Namibia, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

British lawmaker Diana Wallis, who is drafting the EU assembly bill, had recommended the tough labelling rules - instead of a ban - as the way to ensure sealing countries adhere to EU animal welfare rules. But lawmakers in her committee rejected her compromise and opted for the ban instead.

She warned such a ban could lead to legal problems under world trade rules.

"My fear is that a ban will just leave the European public still seeing the same pictures on their TV screens of the Canadian seal cull next year as they see this year," Wallis said after the vote.

The EU has banned the import of white pelts from baby seals since 1983.

Several European Union nations, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, also have their own bans on all seal products. The United States has banned Canadian seal products since 1972.

Cahill said he hoped many of the countries who hunt seals would come forward during the next step in the EU's process to help keep the bill from passing.

In fact, EU members including Denmark, Sweden and Finland have opposed a ban.
But Aldworth contends Monday's vote was a "positive indication" that the end to Canada's commercial seal hunt is in the offing.

"I think this is a very historic moment in the campaign to stop commercial sealing in Canada," she said.

- With files from The Associated Press

Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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