After over a year of deliberations, it is expected that the final ruling of the World Trade Organization panel on the EU seal regime will be released next week.
The WTO decision will be important for those who care about animals and their treatment, as it could – potentially – mark a milestone in the international recognition of animal welfare as a public moral concern that can be legitimately used to implement trade restrictive measures.
There is sure to be much discussion of the panel’s ruling in the weeks to come, and the decision is subject to an appeal by any of the parties meaning that this challenge is likely to continue for some time. But whatever the eventual WTO ruling may be, it is unlikely to hold much hope for the beleaguered sealing industry.
Although the EU itself was a small market for seal products (less than 5% of Canada’s exports), global demand appears to have declined sharply in the wake of the EU ban, with other countries such as the Russian Federation and Taiwan subsequently implementing their own bans on seal products.
Despite protestations of economic viability and a bright future, the sealing industry continues to struggle, relying heavily on government support. In each of the past two years, Carino Ltd, the sole remaining processor in Newfoundland, has required – and received – loans of $3.6 million from the government of Newfoundland and Labrador. There are indications that yet another loan will be requested again this year. In addition, sealers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence now openly admit to dumping seal pelts and blubber overboard – some 6000 skins wasted in the past 3 years – due to the lack of markets. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador recently announced an additional $39,000 in funding to support marketing of seal products in China.
And so what can we expect in response to the WTO panel report? Most likely; politicians decked out in their most fashion-forward sealskin vests (or boots, or bowties – even very few Canadian politicians can afford a full-on sealskin coat) making loud accusations of “hypocritical, “misinformed”, “brainwashed” Europeans. And yes, sealers will complain about how “unfair” it all is.
And it is unfair. But not in the sense that this is between the EU (err, make that 34 countries now) vs. Canada, nor even between NGOs and the sealing industry. The sealing conflict is now between Canadian politicians who use the seal hunt to win votes, and the seals, sealers, and Canadian taxpayers who suffer as a result.
There are three reasons that seals have been hunted in Canada: cultural reasons, economic reasons, and political reasons. Those who hunt seal for cultural purposes – including Inuit hunters and those Newfoundlanders looking for a feed of flippers for supper, are not threatened by the EU ban or any other legislation, and this type of sealing seems likely to continue for as long as it is sustainable.
The economic reasons for continuing to commercially hunt seals are all but gone. Thirty years of efforts to try and realize a Chinese market for seal products have failed. Sealing is not a significant economic opportunity for Atlantic Canadians, nor can it realistically be expected to become one.
This is, after all, the 21st century and the products made from seals are largely unnecessary . And yet, the federal government continues to waste tax dollars on support for the hunt, which in recent years has provided only part-time employment for fewer than 500 sealers.
The only type of sealing that remains in Canada is that done for political purposes.
The seal hunt is supported by Canadian politicians who think it will help them win votes in eastern Canada, facilitated by a private Norwegian company that is happy to take Canadian government funds, and conducted by individuals that continue this dangerous activity based on the false promises made to them by these politicians, in the hopes of earning a few hundred (or if they are fortunate – thousand) dollars.
There has to be a better way.
Regardless of the WTO Panel’s ultimate ruling, the EU is not going to suddenly start importing seal products. The world does not appear to want – nor need – products made from dead seals, and the only ones profiting from the current situation are the politicians.
IFAW is willing to work with sealers and sealing communities towards fair and just compensation for those affected by the death of this industry. Sealers can continue to complain about the past, place blame on NGOs, and look to governments for more handouts – but if history is any indication this is not going to change anything.
We will see more false hopes, more trade bans, more taxes wasted. Like commercial whaling, the commercial seal hunt needs to end once and for all.
It’s time to move on, and with Canadians’ resourcefulness and some innovative thinking, I know we can do better.