Associated Press Writer
STRASBOURG, France—The European Parliament voted to ban imports of seal products Tuesday, including fur coats and even omega-3 pills, trying to force Canada to end the annual seal hunt that animal rights groups call barbaric.
The EU assembly overwhelmingly endorsed a bill that said commercial seal hunting, notably in Canada, is "inherently inhumane." The bill still needs the backing of EU governments, but officials called that a formality since national envoys had already endorsed the bill.
Canada's East Coast seal hunt is the largest of its kind in the world, killing an average of 300,000 harp seals annually. Canada exported around $5.5 million U.S. dollars worth of seal products such as pelts, meat, and oils to the EU in 2006.
The lawmakers faced heavy lobbying from both animal rights groups and authorities from Canada and Greenland. Curbing the hunt of seals in Canada has been the focus of the bill because of the size of its annual cull and the way seals are killed.
The bill is expected to become law in a matter of weeks.
EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas welcomed the vote and said it addressed "EU citizen's concerns with regard to the cruel hunting methods of seals."
Still, Tuesday's vote is sure to pose problems in EU-Canada ties and comes on the eve of a key summit between the two in Prague where they are supposed to launch negotiations on a wide-ranging free trade pact.
Canada and Norway had already warned would take the 27-nation bloc to the World Trade Organization if it moved to ban seal product imports.
The EU ban will apply to all products and processed goods derived from seals including their skins, which are used to make fur coats, meat, oil blubber, organs and even omega 3 pills made with seal oil.
Animal rights groups believe the hunt is cruel, poorly monitored and provides little economic benefit once costs associated with policing and supporting the hunt are factored in. However, sealers and Canadian authorities say it is sustainable, humane and provides income for isolated fishing communities.
The new EU rule will offer narrow exemptions to Inuit communities from Canada and Greenland and elsewhere to continue their traditional hunts but bars them from large-scale trading of their pelts and other seal goods in Europe.
Another exemption will permit noncommercial, "small-scale" hunts to manage seal populations, but seal products from those huntswill not be allowed to enter the EU.
Inuit groups say such restrictions will spell disaster for their communities, which rely heavily on seal hunts for jobs and income.
"(The ban) is definitely going to impact the lives of the Inuit in the very near future," Joshua Kango, head of the Iqaluit, Nunavut-based Amarok hunters and trappers association, told The Associated Press. "We don't have any other way to survive economically."
Kango and a group of Newfoundland sealers were in Strasbourg in a last-ditch attempt to thwart a ban.
Arlene McCarthy, who chairs the European Parliament's internal market and consumer protection committee, said Canada and others cannot ignore the fact that a majority of Europeans are against the hunt and wanted it banned.
For EU lawmakers, she said, those concerns took precedence over the wishes of sealers, fishermen and Inuit groups.
"While we of course have sympathy for those particular groups of people, the reality is that we sit here in the European Parliament and that millions of our citizens would like us to do the right thing and ban the cruel trade," she said. "They do not want to buy these products."
Seals are also hunted in Norway, Namibia, Sweden, Finland, Britain and Russia.