European Parliament Bans Commercial Trade in Seal Products
An Animal Rights Article from


Environmental News Service
May 2009

The European Parliament voted today to ban most seal products from the European market, eliminating a primary source of revenue for the world's seal hunters. The legislative resolution was adopted with 550 votes in favor, 49 against and 41 abstentions.

An exemption is allowed for indigenous communities. The legislators exempted those seal products resulting from hunts traditionally conducted by Inuit and other indigenous communities, which may still be imported and marketed into European Union countries.

Otherwise, the import of seal products is permitted only where it is of an occasional nature and consists exclusively of goods for the personal use of the travelers or products that result from by-products of hunting conducted for the purpose of sustainable management of marine resources on a nonprofit basis, the measure provides.

The European Parliament's ban on commercial trade in seal products will become law if it is adopted by the European Council of Ministers, which represents the member states.

Seal hunter confronts young seal on the Canadian ice (photo courtesy IFAW)

The legislative report on the seal products ban was agreed with the European Council of Ministers in first-reading. It was drafted by UK MEP Diana Wallis of the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats in Europe, ALDE, the third largest political group in Parliament.

Wallis said in the debate today, "Seals are very beautiful marine animals, in fact, I have realized during this process that they have great PR, but to some they are the rats of the sea. That is how they are perceived by many fishermen - an adult seal gets through an enormous amount of fish on a daily basis. Therefore, there will remain the need for seals to be hunted to ensure the sustainability of fisheries in some area."

"But what we have not done here is to regulate hunting," said Wallis. "If people in any of our member states wish to hunt, they can still continue to hunt. What they cannot do is take commercial gain from the results of that hunt."

"But it should be the case that the results of the hunt can be used," she said, "and I hope particularly that those parts of seals that can be used by the medical community will be able to be used."

Defective human heart valves are being replaced with bioprosthetic valves from marine mammals, including seals. The patent holder for this process, Efstathios Andreas Agathos of Massachusetts, says the needed valves can be supplied by "the annual seal harvesting supported by Canadian government for 'population control.'"

"This has been a difficult debate, often emotional, with the heart ruling the head on many occasions. Great progress has been made in the survival and quality of life of cardiac patients by using the aortic, pulmonary and pericardial tissue of harp seals, the assumption being that they are sustainably hunted or killed and not in a cruel way," said Irish MEP Avril Doyle of the Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) and European Democrats, EPP-ED.

"I would like assurances on ongoing medical research and bioprosthetic use of products from seals in the context of the compromise," she said.

"This deal will protect seals from cruelty and protect the Inuit people's traditional way of life," said Christel Schaldemose, a Danish Socialist MEP.

A sealskin coat (Photo by Lars Raaum)

Denmark and Italy are by far the two largest importers of raw fur sealskins for further processing and sales on the European market, and will be most affected by this regulation. Italy imports the raw fur skins from Russia, Finland and Scotland. Greece also has a trade in raw skins originating in Finland and Scotland. Denmark imports the raw fur sealskins directly from Canada and Greenland.

The world's largest seal hunt is conducted every spring off the east coast of Canada. The Government of Canada today expressed its "deep disappointment, concern, and opposition" to the vote by the European Parliament "to move towards a ban on products from Canada's humane and sustainable seal hunt."

"The decision by the European Parliament lacks any basis in facts," said Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea. "The Canadian seal hunt is guided by rigorous animal welfare principles which are internationally recognized by independent observers."

"I once again caution my European counterparts about the dangers of pursuing politically motivated bans on other countries' traditional industries," said Shea. "Our government will stand up for the jobs and communities that depend on the seal hunt."

"If the EU imposes a trade ban on seal products it must contain an exemption for any country, like Canada, that has strict guidelines in place for humane and sustainable sealing practices," said Canada's Trade Minister Stockwell Day. "If there is no such acceptable exemption, Canada will challenge the ban at the World Trade Organization."

A Canadian seal hunter aims his hakapik at a young sea (Photo courtesy IFAW)

The ministers said the Harper Government is studying the exact wording of the regulation and will take action to protect the Canada's sealing industry and continue to defend the interests of Canadian sealers. The government will continue to work with provincial, territorial and industry partners to maintain access to other markets for seal products and to identify and build new markets.

"A European ban would have a devastating impact on thousands of Canadian families in remote coastal communities who rely on the seal hunt for 25 to 35 percent of their annual income," said Shea. "In these difficult economic times the impact of such a loss is even more serious and many families will have to make tough decisions about their future if access to the European market is lost."

Labour Euro MP Arlene McCarthy, who chairs the Consumer Protection Committee in the European Parliament, said, "We have worked extremely hard over recent weeks in the face of heavy lobbying from countries that export this cruel trade.

"We took a tough line and are happy that the Council of Ministers and the European Commission finally backed our call for a ban," McCarthy said.

"The vast majority of people across Europe are horrified by the cruel clubbing to death of seals and this law will finally put an end to the cruel cull of nearly 300,000 seals a year," she said.

In Europe, national bans are already in place in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy; Germany and the UK are considering ways to ban the trade. The ban passed by Parliament today is intended to replace the varied measures adopted by member states so that harmonized conditions govern the trade in those products within the European Community.

"After a 40 year campaign against the trade, Europe has the chance to introduce a ban in all 27 states," McCarthy said.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare applauded the decision as a significant victory in IFAW's 40 year campaign to end Canada's commercial seal hunt.

"The Parliament has hammered the final nail in the coffin of the sealing industry's market in the EU," said Lesley O'Donnell, director of IFAW European Union. "MEPs clearly heeded the tens of thousands of emails, postcards and messages sent by IFAW supporters from across Europe."

It is a testament to the strong political will and determination of the three European political institutions that they were able to come to a first agreement reading, she said.

To celebrate the vote, IFAW held a press conference in Strasbourg with MEPs Robert Evans of the UK, and Frieda Brepoels of Belgium, who have been in favor of the ban on commercial trade in seal products. Standing in front of a gian blow-up seal, the MEPS received 30,000 postcards gathered by IFAW from people who support the ban. The blow-up seal represents the hundreds of thousands of seals that will live if the bill becomes law.

Evans, who is the UK's leading Euro-MP on the issue of animal welfare, said, "I saw the aftermath of the cruel annual slaughter of seals first hand when I visited Canada as long ago as 1995. A ban is long overdue; this decision brings that possibility a step closer."

"From Mexico City to Milan and all the way to Moscow, the world is uniting in opposition to commercial seal hunts," said O'Donnell. "A complete collapse of Canada's commercial seal hunt may now be inevitable."

A total of 30 countries have now banned the sale of seal products. The United States has had a ban for years and Mexico also has banned the trade. Bans are now in place in Russia, and Hong Kong is planning a ban on this trade.

Rebecca Aldworth, director of Canadian wildlife issues with The Humane Society of the United States, is a Canadian national who grew up in seal hunt country. She says the efforts of environmental groups to document the Canadian hunt convinced MEPs to vote against the trade in seal products.

"On our trips to the ice, the ProtectSeals team has brought key opinion shapers such as Paul McCartney and Swedish Member of the European Parliament Carl Schlyter," she said. "After their trips, neither has wavered in speaking out against the hunt."

"Shortly after his trip to the ice, Schlyter drafted the first version of today's EU ban," Aldworth said. "Our hunt footage was directly responsible for convincing the rest of the EU to agree to the ban. It gives me enormous satisfaction to know that we haven't just documented the hunt, we have made history."

This was not a good year for the Canadian seal hunt. Of the initial set quota of 280,000 seals, Canadian sealers were only able to slaughter 59,500 seals this year. Prices for pelts in 2009 dropped to 9 (US$12), down by half from last year's prices, and as a result many sealers stayed home.

Only 306 sealing enterprises from Newfoundland and Labrador took part in this year's hunt, compared with 977 last year, according to Larry Yetman, a resource management officer with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

"What is amazing is that this insignificant industry worth only $13 million is being used by Canada to threaten a $25 billion trade agreement between Canada and the European nations," marvels Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder and president Paul Watson, who for years has demonstrated against the seal hunt on the ice.

"Canadian politicians are not thinking with their heads," said Captain Watson, a Canadian national. "They have their noses out of joint because their darling barbaric little industry is on the road to being abolished. They are responding hysterically, irrationally and they are not acting in the interests of all Canadians."

"I have opposed the slaughter since I was a child and I have opposed the slaughter on the ice since 1975," said Watson. "We have demonstrated that by sheer stubborn persistence we can win out over entrenched political opposition. I have been fined, beaten, jailed, and threatened for three decades in defense of these wonderful animals and it has been worth it, and to see the sealing industry devastated like this is better than winning the lottery. I am more than pleased, I am ecstatic."

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