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Canada is launching a trade challenge of Europe's ban on marketing seal products. But protecting the seal hunt's reputation in other markets, not selling fur to Europe, is what's really at stake.

The World Trade Organization challenge will cost millions to protect a hunt that brought in only about $1-million in seal pelts this recession year. And by far the majority of the retail fur market is in Russia and China, not the EU countries that set restrictions.

However, Canada's struggling seal industry views the WTO challenge as key to stopping the hunt's pariah image from spreading farther east to its main customers.

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To the Canadian government, the trade challenge makes for good politics in coastal communities and will act as a deterrent against other actions that could affect trade.

Activists criticize the seal hunt as barbaric, but the Canadian government has accused them of spreading misinformation. "It is in our view inappropriate that a trade decision is taken which is not based on the science," Trade Minister Stockwell Day said.

Lesley O'Donnell, Europe director of International Fund for Animal Welfare, suggested the EU ban would speed the hunt's end. "We expect the seal hunt to continue its inevitable decline over the coming years until it is wiped out once and for all."

But while Canadian seal skins are often finished in Europe, there are plants elsewhere, and about 90 per cent of the consumer market is in Russia and China, said Rob Cahill, executive director of the Fur Institute of Canada.

"The markets are there outside of Europe to continue the hunt," he said. "But if it goes unchallenged, it is a precedent that is allowable."

The industry was already sliding, however. The annual pelt haul, usually between $5-million and $20-million, declined to about $1-million in 2009 after the recession slashed pelt prices to about $15, from a 2006 peak of $105.

A WTO challenge would likely take three years and cost $10-million, said McCarthy Tétrault trade lawyer Simon Potter.

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But he thinks it's worth it. He believes the EU could not show the seal hunt is less humane than its own hunts and fur industries; but the final EU measure is more a ban on promoting seal products than importing them, so it violates WTO rules by creating different regulations for marketing seal fur and meat than for Europe's meat and fur.

"The dollars do not justify the [WTO]complaint. The principle justifies the complaint, either on a political level, or in sending a message to the EU generally," he said.

With a report from Bloomberg

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