The proposed ban on the sale within the EU, the import, transit and export of seal products was a response to the European Parliament's concerns about practices that cause unwarranted suffering to these animals. A declaration signed in 2006 by 425 MEPs also stressed the need to take measures that would not affect traditional Inuit seal hunting (3% of the world total). But Diana Wallis says the Commission's proposal is contradictory, as a ban would harm the entire market in these products while rendering pointless the exemption for Inuit communities. She also believes the term "ban" is misleading because of the large number of exemptions in the proposal. For consumers, the labelling of products is the best way to help ensure high animal welfare standards, whilst equally assisting Inuit communities, she believes.
Public opinion is regularly outraged by images of seals with their heads smashed in by a "hakapik", a club with a metal point for dragging the animals onto the ice. Over a million and a half baby harp seals have been slaughtered in the north-west Atlantic over the last four years. The overwhelming majority were less than three months old and 42% of the carcasses had been skinned alive, said MEPs in their 2006 declaration. According to Rebecca Aldworth, director of the Canadian branch of the Humane Society International, and Andrew Butterworth, a vet and a Bristol University lecturer, it is in practice virtually impossible to kill seals on a large scale while abiding by animal welfare rules nor to check on these activities. A total ban is thus the only way to end this "particularly cruel slaughter".
The main culprit is Canada, which practices commercial hunting and is the world's largest exporter of seal products, notably skins and fat. According to Garry B. Stenson, a Canadian government representative, seal hunting, as practised in his country, is acceptable, sustainable and not cruel, thanks to effective rules observed by professional hunters. However, David Lavigne (IFAW) told MEPs that Canadian public opinion does not share the view of its government: six out of ten Canadians oppose commercial hunting and 86% want the EU to legislate on seal products even if that affects Canada's trade.
The "Inuit exception"
"A ban would lead to the collapse of Greenland's economy", argued Finn Karlsen, the fisheries minister of that country. He maintained that labelling and certification would not allow a distinction to be made between products from commercial hunting and those from traditional local hunting. Referring to the figure of 140,000 unsold skins being held in storage following a boycott, he said these were traditionally hunted skins from Greenland's central tannery. In addition, the hunting of seals - a "harmful predator" in his view - was needed to preserve a balance in the fish population. Leif Fontaine, former head of the Greenland Association of Hunters and Fishermen, emphasised that his country could not afford to become "an agreeable museum piece for visitors". Seal hunting was an ancestral activity crucial to the population's survival. He stressed that Greenland would bring the matter to the European Court of Human Rights if a decision was taken to introduce a ban.
Baby seals versus the World Trade Organisation
Seal hunting is carried out mainly outside EU territory and it is impossible for the EU to legislate in non-EU countries. This is why the European Union plans to use trade relations as a way of taking action. However, since this measure would affect transit and imports, it is likely to be attacked at the WTO by the countries concerned as a violation of international trade rules and the GATT agreements. Canada, which has already brought a case against Belgium after it banned the sale of seal products on its territory, does not hide its determination to go down this road. According to Diana Wallis, the proposal to label and mark the products would provide a solution to the problem.
MEPs, who will decide on this issue with the Council of Ministers, have only just started work on it. They have until 26 January to table amendments to Diana Wallis' report before the committee vote, which will probably be held in February.