The World Trade Organization says the European Union's ban on the import of seal pelts, oil and meat is justified on moral grounds, a decision that could have a far-reaching impact and inject concerns about animal welfare into the trade of other types of animal products.
A WTO ruling released on Monday says the ban the EU imposed in 2010 undermines the principles of fair trade, but is justified because it "fulfills the objective of addressing EU public moral concerns on seal welfare."
Canada says it will appeal the ruling.
"Canada remains steadfast in its position that the seal harvest is a humane, sustainable and well-regulated activity," Trade Minister Ed Fast, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in a joint statement. "Any views to the contrary are based on myths and misinformation, and the panel's findings should be of concern to all WTO members."
The ban followed condemnation of the seal hunt from celebrities like Paul McCartney, Pamela Anderson and Brigitte Bardot. Critics say it is inhumane to kill seals that are too young to escape with a spiked wooden club called a hakapik.
Sealers and Inuit condemned the WTO decision, saying it will have a devastating effect on their traditional way of life.
The WTO found that an EU exemption permitting the import of seal products from animals hunted by the Inuit is not applied evenly and, as a result, more products from Greenland Inuit than Canadian Inuit are reaching the European Union.
Aaju Peter, an Inuit member of the International Seals and Sealing Network, told reporters that the exemption on seals harvested by aboriginals has never benefited her people because the broader prohibition killed the market for all Canadian seal products.
Ms. Peter said she was offended by the WTO decision to uphold the ban. "It is immoral and inhumane toward the Canadian sealers," she said. "How do we make a living?"
Dion Dakins, the chair of the Sealing Network and the president of a seal processing company, said seal hunting is "the key to the viability of coastal communities and our cultures."
Sealers have watched their industry shrink in recent years as more countries refuse to allow seal products across their borders. Government subsidies now largely keep the hunt in this country alive.
"The decision of the WTO panel to uphold this ban based on moral grounds should be taken very seriously by all sustainable-use industries as it may particularly have broad and unintended impacts for other trade," Mr. Dakins said.
"Where do we draw the line on right versus wrong or good versus bad when it comes to the products of living resources," he asked. "What are the criteria to decide if beef, pork or chicken are acceptable."
Rebecca Aldworth, the executive director of the Humane Society International – Canada, agrees that the effects of the ruling could be far-reaching. But that could be good, she said.
"This is a hugely significant ruling, not just for many nations around the world that right now are watching this case to determine if they can ban seal products," Ms. Aldworth said, "but also for animal welfare in general as it pertains to global trade."
Sheryl Fink, the seal program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, welcomed the WTO decision. "It says that animal welfare is a legitimate public moral concern," she said, "and this concern can be used to justify trade bans."
The sealers say Canada has the highest standards for animal-welfare practices on any hunt in the world. The animal-rights groups, on the other hand, point to reports by veterinary and zoology experts who say the clubbing and shooting of seals in Canada is inhumane and should be prohibited.