HALIFAX - A ruling Thursday from a European court is expected to reignite an international debate over Canada's annual East Coast seal hunt, which started with little notice earlier this month off the north coast of Newfoundland.
A group led by the Canadian Fur Institute has asked the Luxembourg-based General Court of the European Union to strike down a three-year-old EU ban on seal products.
The ban has dealt a serious blow to Canada's centuries-old commercial sealing industry, which landed only 38,000 harp seals in 2011, less than 10 per cent of the total allowable catch.
But the ban didn't kill the hunt.
Even though it was followed by Russia's 2011 decision to prohibit imports of harp seal pelts — eliminating Canada's largest market — the hunt has actually rebounded, taking more than 70,000 seals last year.
The revival came after a $2-million provincial loan to Carino Processing Ltd. of South Dildo, N.L., the world's largest seal processing company. The province has offered another $3 million this year, though Carino has not said who is buying its pelts and seal oil.
The federal Fisheries Department says 844 hunters have taken more than 76,000 seals so far this season, 98 per cent of them off Newfoundland.
Still, the hunt is a shadow of what it once was. Between 2004 and 2006, hunters killed more than 300,000 seals every year.
In an unusual move, the federal government has allowed this year's hunt to go ahead without setting the annual total allowable catch limit, which has been set at 400,000 since 2011.
"It's reprehensible," said Rebecca Aldworth, Canadian director of Humane Society International. "The public has a right to know how the Canadian government is managing any animal species."
The Fisheries Department declined a request for an interview earlier this week and Newfoundland's fisheries minister, Derrick Dalley, was unavailable for comment.
The head of the fur institute, Rob Cahill, said even if his group succeeds in having the EU ban overturned, the EU is expected to launch an appeal that would keep the ban in place until the appeal is heard. That could take years to settle.
"However, the precedent will be a strong legal one," Cahill said in an email. "Remember that the EU was never the largest market for seal products, but their policy position is globally influential ... Long and complicated process and battle for sure."
Aldworth said the sealing industry could hardly claim a victory if the ban is struck down.
"The European market has been removed for several years and any overturning of that ban would not simply re-establish a market," she said in an interview from Montreal.
"There are few places left on this planet for the sealing industry to sell its products."
Meanwhile, the Canadian government is moving ahead with its own bid to challenge the ban through the World Trade Organization. Hearings are slated for next week and a decision is expected later this year.
Aldworth, a Newfoundlander who has observed the hunt for 15 years, said her group would like to see the industry mothballed and all seal hunters offered compensation.
Animal welfare groups have long argued the hunt has left a stain on Canada's reputation because they believe the slaughter is inhumane and unsustainable.
Aldworth said her group recently returned from the floes off northern Newfoundland, where film crews recorded the usual gruesome scenes.
"(We saw) seals that were shot in the face but still crawling around on the ice in their own blood and had to be shot multiple times to render them unconscious," she said. "It's very much the kind of killing that we film every year."
Though Canada's sealing industry represents a tiny fraction of the East Coast's fishing industry, the annual hunt has loomed large on the region's political landscape since the 1700s.
Last year, the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature adopted a resolution that stated: "The seal hunt has been a staple of our history for as long as the codfish. These industries are the cornerstones of our predominant maritime economy."
Virtually all of the country's 11,000 registered seal hunters live in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The federal government has maintained its support of the slaughter, saying the hunt offers crucial economic support for isolated communities and is carried out using humane practices.
The Fisheries Department says the harvest provides direct employment for over 6,000 people on a part-time basis, though the numbers regarding the economic impact vary widely.