EU court exempts Inuit hunters from ban on seal product imports, asks bloc to justify ban

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) — The European Union's high court temporarily exempted Inuit hunters in Canada and Greenland on Friday from the bloc's new trade ban on seal products, while asking European Parliament and EU governments to justify the ban.

Indigenous people had argued their livelihoods depend on their ability to hunt seals and export products such as seal meat, pelts, blubber, organs and oil used in producing omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

They said the EU ban on seal products, which went into effect Friday, disproportionately impacted their traditional way of life.

EU governments have argued that Canada's annual seal hunt was inhumane in allowing pups to be clubbed to death so their pelts would not be damaged by bullets or blades.

The Inuit account for only 1 percent of Canadian seal imports into the EU. These amounted to euro4.1 million last year, according to EU data.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare, which lobbied intensely for the ban, said it hoped Friday's exemption was short-lived.

"We expect this to be a brief delay in the full implementation of the EU seal ban," group spokesman Adrian Hiel said.

"Given that the EU seal ban provides a clear exemption (for) Inuit and noncommercial seal hunters ... we are confident that the suspension will be lifted and the EU seal ban will be implemented in the near future," he said.

Mary Simon, president of Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents Canada's 53,000 Inuit, welcomed the court's decision. "I can only hope that the EU court will determine that the ban and its so-called Inuit exemption are illegal."

Canada also is suing the EU through the World Trade Organization.

Canadian hunters killed an average of 300,000 harp seals annually before the industry began experiencing dramatic drops in catches in recent years. The country's East Coast sealing industry has struggled amid the global recession, vocal animal rights protests and the European ban.

Fewer hunters went out last year because pelt prices bottomed out at $14 compared with more than $100 a skin only a few years ago.