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No More Seals

sac/sms/afp/ap/dpaMarch 3, 2009

The EU could soon be off limits for seal products. European parliamentarians have voted to outlaw these goods, with the exception of traditional Inuit hunting. Opponents say the ban may break international trade rules.

A harp seal
Seals are mainly hunted for their pelts, but also for meat and fat used in beauty productsImage: AP

The European Parliament's internal market committee has voted to strictly ban trading throughout the EU in products derived from seals. A report approved by the committee on Tuesday, March 3, said the ban would cover seal products, as well as meat, oil, blubber, organs and fur skins.

The parliament said in a statement that it had reacted to concerns by non-governmental organizations and public opinion in most member states about seal killings.

"A clear majority of citizens across the European Union are horrified by the cruel clubbing to death of thousands of seals every year," said Arlene McCarthy, the committee's chair. "They do not want these products on sale in the EU and today, the internal market committee has backed citizens' demands for a ban."

Inuit hunting only exception

The European Commission had proposed several exceptions to the ban, for example when the seals are killed "without causing avoidable pain, distress and any other form of suffering." But the committee's MEPs chose to limit these by a 27-7 vote.

Inuit in the snow
Inuits will be able to continue their traditionsImage: AP

In addition, they ignored the view of the committee's rapporteur Diana Wallis, who had proposed a labeling system rather than an outright ban. She said she believed it would be more effective in assuring the customer that animal welfare norms had been obeyed. Wallis said she doubted whether the ban, based on EU internal market rules, would be compatible with international trade rules.

But Danish MEP Christel Schaldemose said legal opinions were not central in this case.

"In this debate we are not dealing with a legal dilemma but a political one, to which parliament must give a political response," Schaldemose said.

In practice, seal products such as bags, hats, boots and gloves used by motorcyclists, skiers and boxers would be outlawed, as would parapharmaceutical products sold as Omega 3 fatty acid supplements.

However, the committee did vote in favor of a proposed exception for Inuit and other aboriginal communities living in Greenland, Canada, Russia and the United States. This would apply to products derived from traditional subsistence hunting that could be traded for cultural, educational, or ceremonial purposes, the committee said.

Harmonizing trade rules in the EU

The new regulation would lay down common corresponding rules that are directly applicable throughout the EU. At present, national laws vary, with some countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands having already banned trade in seal products and others expecting to do so.

A bleeding seal pup
Seals are often shot or clubbed to deathImage: AP

Yet Nordic EU countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland have opposed such a ban. Canada and Greenland have warned the EU that they could challenge such a ban before the World Trade Organization.

Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea said her government was "disappointed" by the vote, which would severely impact a major Canadian export.

"Canada has made numerous attempts to set the facts straight about the Canadian seal hunt and we have provided ample evidence of the humaneness and sustainability of the hunt," Shea said. "Unfortunately, this evidence is not yet understood in Europe."

To become law, the ban still needs the approval of the entire EU assembly and EU governments. The European Parliament is expected to vote on this report on April 1 in Brussels.