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Hunters gather pelts as the annual East Coast seal hunt starts in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on March 23, 2009.

ANDREW VAUGHAN/Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The battle over Canada's controversial seal hunt has reignited as a powerful panel in Geneva began hearing arguments over whether the European Union's ban on seal products is legitimate.

Canada and Norway, two seal-hunting allies, in 2010 turned to the World Trade Organization to contest the EU's seal ban. Oral arguments started Monday and the hearing has once again put Canada's seal-hunting industry in the international spotlight.

Sealing may be a small slice of Canada's economy, but the fight could have broader implications. The latest round of sparring comes as Canada and the EU hammer out the final details of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, a deal more than 100 members of the European Parliament said they will vote against unless Canada drops its WTO challenge. That pledge came before the WTO kicked off the seal proceedings.

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The EU in 2009 banned commercial seal products, arguing hunting methods are cruel. Ottawa argues hunts are humane, sustainable and well-regulated.

"East Coast seal hunt can be, and is, conducted in a humane fashion," Canada's representative said by video link to the hearing in Geneva, according to Agence France-Presse.

Rob Cahill, executive director of the Fur Institute of Canada, argues the EU's position is hypocritical and inconsistent. While the EU condemns the seal hunt in Canada and Norway, some of its member countries permit seal hunts in order to protect fisheries. Further, Mr. Cahill says that if the ban is backed by moral arguments such as animal welfare, then there should be no exceptions. However, Canada's Inuit are exempt from the EU's ban.

There are about eight million Northwest Atlantic harp seals off the east coast of Canada, according to the FIC. Canadian seal hunters were permitted to kill about 400,000 of these last year, but only took 65,000, Mr. Cahill said.

There are between 350,000 and 400,000 grey seals, he said, with the Canadian quota reaching 60,000. Canadians also hunt ringed seals in the north, with the quota ranging around 10,000 to 15,000 and harvested primarily by Inuit hunters, Mr. Cahill said. Rifles are used to kill about 95 per cent of the seals in Canada's hunts, he noted. Alternatively, hunters mainly in Quebec also use hakapiks, Mr. Cahill said.

About 15,000 Canadians hold seal-hunting licences, he said, but only a few hundred participated in last year's hunt.

Humane Society International suggests Canada could end the seal hunt without financially hurting these fishers.

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"With the globally condemned Canadian sealing industry running out of places to sell its products, HSI/Canada calls on the Canadian government to implement a federal buyout of the commercial sealing industry," the HSI said in a statement Monday. "This plan would involve ending the seal hunt, providing immediate compensation for sealers, and investing in economic alternatives in the communities involved."

An Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of the HSI says sealers in Newfoundland and Labrador are split on the issue. Among sealing licence holders expressing an opinion, half supported an industry buyout plan, said the poll, conducted in December, 2009, and January, 2010.

Mr. Cahill shot down this suggestion, using the same argument EU members use when they allow sealing in their boundaries. "A buyout is not going to address the fact that seal populations are increasing and going to have to be managed," he said in an interview from Geneva.

Ipsos polled 267 people for its study, with 181 of those holding sealing licences. The maximum margin of error associated with a sample of 181 respondents at a 95-per-cent confidence level is 7.3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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