TORONTO -- The World Trade Organization upheld Thursday the European Union's ban on the import of seal pelts, oil and meat on moral grounds. Canada and Norway had challenged the ban.
The EU banned seal products in 2010, saying seal hunting, which can involve clubbing seals on the head, causes unavoidable pain and distress.
A year before the ban was imposed, it was challenged by major seal-hunting countries Canada and Norway. Canada and Norway, which is not an EU member, said seal hunting is done in an ethical manner and argued that the ruling set a dangerous precedent because trade decisions were being made on the basis of morality rather than science. Canada protested again after Thursday's ruling.
The WTO's Appellate Body ruling released Thursday in Geneva said that concerns about animal welfare can override commercial interests. It also agreed that the EU's ban on seal products is necessary to protect public morals as spelled out in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the international treaty that formed the basis of the WTO.
The EU ban contains exceptions for Canada's indigenous Inuits and Inuvialuit peoples from the northern province of Nunavut, who argue that the market for their seal products has been seriously affected by the overall embargo. Greenland's Kalaallit hunters are also exempt. Their homeland is an autonomous territory of EU member Denmark, but is not part of the 28-nation bloc.
Canada and Norway said Greenland's exemptions were unfair to non-indigenous hunting communities and that the scale of Greenland's hunt was comparable to commercial sealing.
The appellate body declined to rule on the issue, but agreed with a November 2013 ruling that exemptions do not give the same market access to Canadian and Norwegian seal products as those from Greenland.
EU trade spokesman John Clancy said the ruling "demonstrates that the EU can maintain its values within an open trading system." He said the WTO faulted the EU for the way the ban has been implemented, and said the EU will study the ruling "carefully."
International animal rights groups have long protested Canada's annual hunt, which allows for the slaughter of 400,000 harp seals, saying it is cruel, poorly monitored and provides little economic benefit.
"This is a wonderful day for seals," said Sheryl Fink, the Canadian Wildlife Programs Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "Canada and Norway used every technical argument they could to try to force products from a cruel and unnecessary commercial seal hunts on Europeans. But reason and compassion have triumphed. This is a great day for animal welfare, and the WTO is to be congratulated on this ruling."
Seal hunters and Canadian authorities have maintained that the hunting is humane and provides income for isolated northern indigenous communities.
Fishermen sell seal pelts mostly to the fashion industry in Norway and Russia, as well as blubber for oil. The hunt exported about $5.5 million worth of seal products including pelts, meat and oils to the EU in 2006.
Canada's Fisheries Minister Gail Shea and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said Thursday that the EU ban was a political decision that has no basis in fact or science.
"Canada's position has been that the Eastern and Northern seal harvests are humane, sustainable and well-regulated activities that provide an important source of food and income for coastal and Inuit communities," said the statement.
Canada's East Coast sealing industry has dwindled in recent years because of the global recession, animal rights protests and the European ban. About 94,000 harp seals were harvested in 2013.