In a long-awaited decision that will have significant consequences for sealers, the European Union on Wednesday moved to ban imports of products derived from seals that are inhumanely killed.
It's unclear exactly what the EU's standard for humane killing would be, but seal products from countries that "practise hunting methods that involve unnecessary pain" will not be allowed into the 27-nation bloc, EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas said in a statement.
The European Commission announced the proposal Wednesday, but the measures must receive final approval from the EU's executive and legislative branches.
Dimas said the rules will make special allowances for products from traditional Inuit sealers.
The EU has been under increased pressure from animal rights groups and legislators at the European parliament to take action over the seal hunt, which they claim is cruel and should be stopped. Sealers say the hunt is humane, sustainable and an important income source.
For months, the EU had been weighing its options. Some campaigners were calling for a total ban on seal-product imports from Canada and other countries that have annual seal culls.
Door still open for exports
The decision to only block inhumanely obtained seal products leaves the door open for sealers and hunters on Canada's East Coast to export to Europe, but with stricter conditions.
It is too early to say what those conditions might be, however.
A report last year from the European Food Safety Authority mentioned several possible types of unnecessary suffering in the seal hunt, including skinning animals while they are conscious and trapping seals under water to kill them by drowning.
The report hinted at what the EU might consider to be humane sealing methods, suggesting that it would involve, as a minimum, shooting or clubbing seals first and then checking to ensure they're dead before bleeding and skinning them.
Canadian regulations already require that seals be confirmed dead before a hunter can begin skinning.
In Canada, seal hunting takes place mostly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is allowing hunters to kill up to 275,000 harp seals this year.
Top prices for pelts have dropped considerably, from $105 per skin in 2006 to an expected $33 this year, according to NuTan Furs Inc., a Newfoundland seal-product processor.