WTO supports EU ban on seal products: What needs to happen next?

A Canadian harp seal pup on the ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. c. IFAWNow that the excitement has settled, I thought it would be good to reflect on the recent ruling by the WTO Appellate Body, which was largely in favour of the European ban on the import and sale of seal products.

This ban has been a long time in the making for IFAW.

It was over a decade ago that IFAW first took several MEPs to the ice to observe the seal hunt, and began to work on trade bans in Belgium, Netherlands, and other countries…which culminated in the successful passing of the EU-wide ban on seal products in 2009. 

RELATED: WTO affirms EU ban on seal products

The WTO’s final “seal of approval” on the ban is a huge milestone in our campaign to end Canada’s commercial seal hunt, and it could not have been accomplished without the hard work and dedication of so many individuals, organizations, and EU politicians. 

Most of all, it could not have happened without YOUR support – for which we (and the seals) are forever grateful.

The ruling is a major victory for animal welfare because the WTO has ruled that non-trade concerns, such as public morality, can be used to restrict trade. Animal welfare is accepted as a matter of public morality, and trade bans can be used to protect animal welfare.

In practical terms, it means that the EU ban can remain in place, although the Indigenous and Marine Resource Management exceptions will need to be modified. The fact that indigenous hunts were singled out for exemption by the EU was not at issue, but the way the exemption was applied needs to be improved.

The task is now on the EU to modify the design of this exception so it conforms to the criteria, and we are confident that this can be accomplished.

The WTO accepted the EU’s argument that the risk of inhumane sealing is impossible to eliminate. They also allowed that the ban’s air to reduce demand for seal products globally - and therefore reduce inhumane sealing in general - is in line with international trade law.

The Canadian government, Norwegian government, and Fur Institute of Canada’s responses are brave attempts by struggling communications departments to put a positive spin on the ruling, but the arguments are weak and transparent.

For example, the claim that the EU ban violates trade obligations and needs to be changed to comply with the WTO is true, but this was the case even prior to the appeal - and something that can be easily done.

A few pro-seal hunting factions went even further, suggesting that seals would now need to be culled to “manage” their populations, and that preventing the sale of seal products would  “turn a valuable natural resource into wastage” and “put sustainable use in peril.”

This, of course, ignores all scientific evidence that culling seals does nothing to benefit fish stocks, and the reality that the world market for seal products is quickly disappearing

For their part, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami said it was “morally outraged” at the EU; but perhaps their outrage should be directed at Canada, who argued against the exemption in the ban for Inuit seal products.

Canada now has an opportunity to do two things:

  1. First, they can – and should – finally extricate themselves from 30 year-long, multi-million dollar commitment of financially propping up the economically unviable commercial seal hunt. It is now clear without any doubt that this hunt has no future. And with fewer than 400 active sealers, the time is right to invest in alternatives that will benefit fishermen and their communities.
  2. Secondly, Canada can work constructively with the EU to modify the application of the indigenous exception and ensure Canadian Inuit can take advantage of EU markets.  Whether they choose to do so remains to be seen.

And for our part, IFAW will continue to work with the EU to support the necessary modifications to the ban, and ensure that cruel commercial seal products do not find their way into the marketplace.

We will also continue to work with Canadian politicians and fishing communities in Atlantic Canada to encourage not only an end to the cruel and unnecessary seal hunt, but to develop better solutions for the future.

With your continued support I know we will succeed in ending this slaughter for good.


Donate now in support of our continuing efforts to better animal welfare legislation around the world.

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Executive Vice President
Executive Vice President
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Pauline Verheij, Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Country Representative, Germany
Country Representative, Germany
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy