OTTAWA - The European Union's ban on imports of seal products is an unfair trade restriction and Canada will appeal it at the World Trade Organization, says Trade Minister Stockwell Day.

"It's very important when you're dealing with WTO matters that trade decisions are based on scientific evidence, not just on an emotional whim," Day told a news conference Monday, hours after the vote took place in Brussels.

"We are taking the EU decision to task because of that."

Canada wants countries that abide by EU sealing guidelines exempted from the ban, Day said.

"The Canadian hunt follows the humanitarian, scientific norms established by veterinarians," he said. "And also we follow the environmental processes that are expected, and that we expect people to follow."

Canada will request WTO consultations, which last 60 days. Canada will appeal if the consultations don't yield an agreement. A formal appeal may take years but will result in a decision that's considered binding among signatories.

Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said the EU "caved" to pressure from non-governmental organizations and "professional seal hunt lobbyists" - whose motives she questioned.

"This has become a cash cow for them," she said.

"They can appeal to the emotions of the supporters who want to stop the seal hunt. ...

"I contend that they continue to spread misinformation because it brings a significant amount of dollars into their organization."

Animal-rights activists call that point of view "inaccurate and cynical."

"This attempt to question the motives of animal protection groups in opposing the commercial seal hunt is absurd," said Rebecca Aldworth, director of Humane Society International Canada.

"We as an organization ... have campaigned for five decades to bring about an end to the commercial seal hunt. We are in the business of putting ourselves out of business on this issue."

A majority of the EU's 27 member states have said they see the way Canada conducts its hunt, the world's largest, as inhumane.

The ban was approved without debate Monday at a meeting of EU parliamentarians.

Denmark and Romania abstained from backing the measure. Austria also abstained because it wanted an even stricter ban.

The EU ban exempts products derived from traditional hunts carried out by Inuit in Canada's Arctic, as well as those from Greenland, Alaska and Russia. They can export products to the EU but only "on a not-for-profit basis."

Inuit have made it clear that the EU's stated exemption will not help them, Shea said, "but the EU persists in pretending that it will."

"We have expected the EU to act on science instead of misinformation," she said.

A ban will not improve animal-welfare standards or stop the seal hunt in the many small coastal communities and among aboriginal populations where it is crucial, she added.

Mary Simon, head of the national Inuit group Inuit Tapirisat Kanatami, called the ban "an abomination because it directly attacks cultures, communities, and livelihoods that represent a basic means of living for many here in Canada."

Newfoundland and Labrador's government, meanwhile, said the ban is "completely unjustified and blatantly disregards international trade agreements."

But the International Fund for Animal Welfare applauded the EU decision as a "significant victory" in IFAW's 40-year campaign to end Canada's commercial seal hunt.

"There is a wonderful sense of accomplishment today after years of hard work," said Lesley O'Donnell, director of IFAW-EU.

The EU gave its final approval just a day after the federal government made a last-ditch effort to persuade European politicians to vote against the ban.

Canada's fur industry expressed disappointment over the federal government's approach to lobbying EU politicians.

"Our government really chose a 'draw the line in the sand' approach: 'don't do it or we're going to WTO,"' said Robert Cahill, executive director of the Fur Institute of Canada.

"That kind of threat approach, while it might be useful in terms of looking strong, doesn't do anything to address the public concerns for animal welfare and obviously hasn't impacted the decision-makers in Europe.

"I think that the government of Canada didn't recognize the complexity of this issue. It's not a 'yes-or-no, right-or-wrong.' It's a far more complex issue of animal use."

Other industry groups played down the vote's significance to the hunt, saying it's really the loss of potential business for sealers because the principal markets for seal products are Russia and China.

The long-term benefits of any WHO ruling would be "negligible," said Frank Pinhorn of the Canadian Sealers Association.

"They (EU members) may be charged a fine or whatever it is, so the overall impact of that over time is so minuscule that it doesn't mean anything to the average Newfoundlander who is trying to seek out a living from the ocean," he said from St. John's, N.L.

"Once you see these numbers of countries banning the importation of seal products, well it has an impact either directly or indirectly on other markets in other places in the world. Plus it sort of puts a black eye on us one way or the other."

Gerry Byrne, a Liberal MP from Newfoundland and Labrador, said Ottawa should include the seal ban in its talks with the EU on a free-trade agreement.

"One of the very first acts within the context of those discussions is the illegal trade ban on Canadian seal products," he said in an interview from St. Anthony, N.L.

"That's more than disappointing because it poisons the waters and taints the validity of that agreement."

He said a recent meeting of G20 countries in Washington signed a declaration against illegal or unfair trade barriers that would make the recession worse.

"And yet the EU has just signed an agreement that allows them to do just that," Byrne said.

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