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Russia and two of its neighbours have informed the World Trade Organization that they are banning the import and export of harp seal pelts – a move that animal-rights activists are celebrating as the death knell of Canada's commercial seal industry.

Russia has been the biggest market for the Canadian seal fur industry. And harp seals are the prime source of that fur.

So animal-rights groups were delighted on Monday to learn that Russian, Belarus and Kazakhstan had informed the WTO they would no longer import or export "raw, tanned and dressed fur skin of harp seals and their pups." Documents filed with the global trade body suggest the prohibition was backdated to August.

The European Union has a similar ban, which the Canadian government is challenging.

Sheryl Fink, the director of the seal program for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, on Monday called the move by Russia and the other two countries a welcome surprise.

"If Russia is 90 per cent of the market, that's a huge chunk gone, and it's not a great market to start with," Ms. Fink said. "So the question is, is Canada going to admit that people don't want seal products, or are we going to keep fighting this one?"

Rebecca Aldworth, the executive director of the Humane Society International/Canada, said the ban demonstrates the global momentum to close the international market for seal products.

"It clearly spells the end of Canadian sealing as so many other trade bans have done over recent years," Ms. Aldworth said. Her organization, she added, is calling on the federal government to offer a one-time buy-out for people in Canada's commercial sealing industry.

But the government seemed caught off guard by news of the ban on Monday. Calls to the Russian embassy were not returned.

And Rob Cahill, the executive director of the Fur Council of Canada, was scratching his head. "In fact, the traders this year have been trading seal furs into Russia and have not heard anything," Mr. Cahill said.

The way the notice to the WTO is worded, the pelts of grey seals and ring seals, as well as seal oil and seal meat, could still be exported from Canada to Russia, he said, and the codes on the notice do not pertain specifically to seal skin. "So we are still trying to make sense of it," Mr. Cahill said.

Russia has its own seal hunt but, in 2009, banned the killing of all seals under one year old. Canada permits sealers to take pups that have lost their white coats, which occurs when they are between two and three weeks old.

It is impossible to tell exactly what percentage of Canadian seal pelts go to Russia. But the representative of two seal processing plants in Newfoundland was quoted in The Globe and Mail in 2006 as saying 90 per cent of Canadian pelts go to Russia and China and that Russia is the No. 1 customer.

Alan Herscovici, the executive vice-president of the Fur Council of Canada, there has been much confusion in the past few years, and markets have been weak because of bans like those in the European Union.

But there is no scientific justification for a ban on the seal industry, Mr. Herscovici said.

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