Date: May 16, 2007
Origin: Europolitics

A group of veterinary experts from the European Commission's DG Environment left Brussels on 10 April with the intention of observing the seal hunting conditions and practices in Newfoundland (Canada), only to return empty handed. Poor weather conditions and the state of the ice made it impossible for them to observe any seal hunts. They will therefore be unable, as Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas would have hoped, to submit a detailed report by the end of the year, based on which the commissioner was going to decide on whether or not EU intervention was necessary. While remaining highly critical of hunting practices in Canada, the European Union nevertheless supports the renewed seal hunting activities in Finland and Sweden.


The EU mission left following the vote on 15 March in favour of a European Parliament resolution calling for a complete ban on all imports of fur and other seal products (see Europolitics 3271). Responding to the traditional' spring fever pressure to take action against seal hunting, Dimas indicated that the European Commission does not have the necessary legal instruments to enable it to impose such a ban but that member states that wished to were free to do so. He also promised that he would assess the situation based on the experts' report, causing concern among the Canadian authorities. Loyola Sullivan, the Canadian ambassador for fisheries conservation, had previously stated that should the EU impose such a ban, he had every intention of defending Canada with all possible means, including if necessary appealing to the World Trade Organisation under Article 2.2 (non-tariff barriers). Indeed, the Canadian authorities have good reason to be worried. Belgium passed a law on 16 March 2007, banning the manufacturing and marketing of all seal-derived products (with an exclusion for seals hunted by Eskimos in the traditional manner). A similar but temporary ban also exists in Italy. The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, although further behind in the process, also intend to introduce similar measures.


Basing their argument purely on ethics, the Europeans criticise the "inhumane" and "non-sustainable" nature of seal hunting practices in Canada. Ottawa denies both allegations, although it does admit that efforts by NGOs have contributed to "cleaning the sector". Hunting methods have changed - 90% of seals are now killed by bullets and no longer with hakapiks' (clubs with a barb at the end) - and hunting is now controlled with licenses and quotas (270,000 seals in 2007) decided by the government based on the seal population and the size and number of ships. There is also close satellite surveillance of seal hunting both at sea and in the off-loading ports. Eskimos are exempt from these restrictions. The Canadian authorities have emphasised that while seal hunting represents only a very small part of the Canadian economy, it is nevertheless an important element in their regional economy. Seal hunting and associated activities in Newfoundland generated C$55 million in 2006, representing one quarter of the region's annual revenue. When the first ban on importing seal furs was introduced by the EU in 1983, the entire market collapsed: Eskimos, despite the exemptions from which they benefit, were impacted badly (loss of revenue with the consequent social and health problems). This is the reason that Canadian authorities and the populations that are affected refuse to repeat the experience (1). While acting as Canada's moral guardian', the EU makes no mention of its own hunting, including seal hunting, activities. Excluding Greenland, a Danish territory which is not part of the European Community, seal hunting is practised in the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea (coastal hunting), in Finland, Sweden and Denmark, as well as associated countries such as Norway. Interrupted at the end of the seventies because of the threat to the seal population as a result of the over-hunting and chemical contamination caused by the use of DDT and PBT in the Baltic Sea, seal hunting is slowly making its comeback. This is particularly true in the Gulf of Finland since the nineties due to the large increase in the seal population (estimated at approximately 18,000 heads) and the harm that they cause to fishing gear and fish resources.
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