Bridges Trade BioResVolume 9Number 20 • 13th November 2009

Canada, Norway Launch WTO Complaint over EU Seal Ban


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Canada and Norway have formally requested WTO consultations with the EU over Brussels’ controversial ban on imports of seal products, which is scheduled come into force in August 2010. The move by the two prominent sealing nations came following the 2 November publication of the seal ban in the Official Journal of the European Union - the EU’s last legislative phase.

The EU ban has triggered much debate over the appropriate grounds for barring imports of a given product. Once implemented, the ban will block trade in seal products from commercial sealing operations - such as those in Canada and Norway - which they say is “inherently cruel” and “inhumane.” But both countries have insisted that that this is not the case and that the EU has formulated policy based on inaccurate information supplied by the anti-sealing lobby.

Canada has long argued that the perception of the hunt is not based on proven scientific data - a key requirement for such a ban under WTO rules. “The Canadian seal hunt is a legitimate economic pursuit, and the EU’s decision to ban the importation of seal products is based neither on science nor on facts,” Stockwell Day, Canada’s Trade Minister, said in a 2 November statement. “We believe that this is a violation of the EU’s trade obligations.”

Role of lobby groups questioned

Canada has accused the EU of bowing to pressure from interest groups that they say are using misleading information to close the industry. “Our government will continue to counter the misinformation campaign by the anti-seal hunt lobby groups, and we will continue to defend the interests and livelihoods of Canadian sealers,” said Gail Shea, Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

But critics of the Canadian sealing industry say it is the Canadian government that is being pressured by lobby groups to help buoy an “insignificant” industry. “Canadian politicians seem to have no problem spending $10 million in tax payer dollars in a desperate attempt to save a dying $1 million industry,” said Sheryl Fink, Senior Researcher with International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a US-based anti-sealing organisation.

Exact numbers on the size and profitability of the commercial seal hunt have been a point of contention between the sealing industry and its critics.

IFAW says the majority of Canadians disapprove of the government’s move to challenge the EU ban at the WTO. The group also says that even if Canada is successful in its bid to overturn the ban, two-thirds of Canadians believe the commercial seal hunt has no future.

Indigenous exemption not enough for Inuit

The EU ban provides an exemption for seal products harvested by indigenous peoples, but only if the products are traded “as part of a non-commercial exchanges between Inuit communities for cultural, educational or ceremonial purposes.”

Chuck Strahl, Canada’s Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, argued that the exemption fails to address the concerns of Canada’s indigenous communities. “Inuit groups have told us that this will do nothing to protect their access to European markets, and past experiences with such exemptions have shown us that they are not effective,” Strahl said.

The request for consultations is linked to an existing dispute launched by Canada over national bans in Belgium and the Netherlands on seal products (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 5 October 2007). The issue over the national bans has not yet been resolved, but Canada says it hopes all issues related to seal bans in Europe will be resolved through the new consultations.

Norway follows suit

Three days after Canada’s 2 November move, Norway also requested consultations at the WTO on the grounds that the ban violates trade rules.

“In our view, the EU decision is contrary to WTO rules on a number of key points,” said Jonas Gahr Støre, Norway’s Foreign Minister. “We will not let this go uncontested. We have therefore requested formal WTO dispute settlement consultations.”

The non-EU Scandinavian country says the sealing industry is a sustainable and carefully regulated part of Norway’s wildlife management policy and proposed that the EU work together with seal-hunting countries to ensure that proper harvesting methods are used.

Canada is the largest seal product producer in the world. One third of its seal products go to the EU market. The quota for Canada’s seal harvest in 2009 was set at 280,000 while Norway’s was 47,000.

By requesting consultations at the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body, the two countries have initiated bilateral consultations on the matter. If talks fail to produce a resolution after 60 days, Ottawa and Oslo will have the right to launch an official appeal, asking the international trade court to rule on the issue.

ICTSD Reporting; “Canada Takes WTO Action Vs EU’s Seal Pdts Ban,” THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, 2 November 2009; “Canada Files WTO Complaint Over EU Seal Product Ban,” BLOOMBERG, 2 November 2009, “Norway makes WTO complaint against EU seal product ban,” AFP, 5 November 2009.

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