WTO hearings: Canada and Norway challenge EU over seal product regulations

IFAW's Sheryl Fink taking notes from the World Trade Organisation meeting in Geneva.Monday February 18th was the first of three days of hearings at the World Trade Organization (WTO), where Canada and Norway are challenging the European Union over the legislation regulating the importation and sale of seal products.

The statements made over the next few days will likely spark allegations of protectionism, misinformation, even “brainwashing”… but months from now, the three panelists will use this information to make an important decision about animal welfare and how – and if -- it impacts trade.

They will decide whether the European Union (EU) sales ban violates WTO rules, and if so, whether the restriction on seal products is still justified by the necessity to respond to the legitimate moral concerns that EU citizens have about the welfare of seals.

Having observed the Canadian commercial seal hunt myself for 11 years now, I know there is more than enough evidence to show that this hunt cannot be conducted humanely. 

Although Canada made minor changes to the Marine Mammal Regulations in 2009 in attempt to circumvent the EU seal ban, it was not enough. 

The environmental conditions are too unpredictable, the drive for profit too strong, for humane killing practices to be consistently applied.

The area of the hunt is too vast for authorities to properly monitor or enforce any regulations, and even when cruelty is caught on camera and submitted to authorities, technical issues mean that prosecution is difficult. 

And at the end of the day, one wonders what this challenge is really all about? 

It is not about protecting industry or jobs of Canadian workers.  The commercial seal hunt is nearly bust.

Carino Inc, the sole remaining seal processor in Newfoundland required a $3.6 million CAD bailout last year to remain operational.  And even though they have only paid a fraction of that money back, they have indicated that they may be asking for another bailout again this year.

An article by Canadians Robert Howse, Joanna Langille and Katie Sykes published in the Globe and Mail last week suggests that Canada is using the WTO itself to keep the seal hunt on artificial life support.

Seal products are continuing to fall from demand, and since the EU ban came into place, Russia has also implemented regulations against the importation of cruel seal products.

There are indications that the end may be in sight.  The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) quietly noticed the absence of “seal day” on Parliament Hill this year, with federal politicians apparently taking a pass on the annual show of choking back seal meat or wearing seal fur ribbons for the cameras.

Could it be possible that the Harper government is beginning to realize that continuing to throw money at a dying seal hunt is bad business? Time will tell.

For now, Canada seems intent on throwing tens of millions of dollars into fighting the EU ban, with the only possible rationale for this exercise being the maintenance of political pride.

So here is our message to Canadian politicians this year: it’s okay to admit the seal hunt is over.

It would have – and should have – disappeared decades ago. Sealing once provided necessary products, but those days are long gone.

It’s time to let this outdated industry take its place in the history books.


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Beth Allgood, Country Director, United States
Country Director, United States
Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation
Peter LaFontaine, Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Sonja Van Tichelen, Vice President of International Operations
Vice President of International Operations
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime