Market forces are the best way to stop cruelty of seal clubbing

DAVID MARTIN - Labour member of the European Parliament

THE sight of skinless dismembered seal carcases savagely strewn across the ice floes off Newfoundland will once again be on our TV screens as Canada's annual commercial seal hunt begins again. It is the largest commercial hunt of marine mammals in the world.

Last year over 224,000 harp and hooded seals (98.5 per cent of which were pups under three months old) were clubbed to death or shot for their fur and other products; an inhumane practice that continues to find support from the Canadian government. International calls to end this cruel and commercially questionable practice are heard annually and little has been done about it. The even more striking fact is that only a handful of EU states have fully outlawed the trade in seal products, and the UK is not one of them.

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Using its market power is the most effective tool that the EU has at its disposal in ending the cull and Britain is in a prime position to make it happen.The European marketplace is a major economic force. Last year 19 per cent of all world trade was done with the EU alone. Indeed, if Europe was to no longer permit producers of seal products to trade within our borders, the effects would certainly be felt. In 2006, 32 per cent of Canadian seal fur exports went to the EU, mostly to Finland, Germany, Denmark and Greece.

With an EU ban, Canadian sealers would thus be forced financially to think twice about the heartless hunt.

At the European Parliament, action has been taken to try and encourage the council and the commission to introduce and enforce a Europe-wide ban. A written declaration signed by 450 MEPs was adopted and the commission's proposed animal welfare action plan received widespread approval. Political will at EU level is, therefore, not lacking.

However, despite resounding European political support for these measures, it is the choice of individual governments to introduce a ban. The Netherlands, Belgium and Slovenia have all implemented outright bans and other member states are contemplating similar action. The UK has said it would welcome EU action on the issue, yet very little seems to have been done to actively pursue this end and a domestic ban is not yet in place.

Much is made of Britain's status as one of the EU's "major players" and its influence could stimulate concerted European legislation in this area. The UK's ability to come out of every recent treaty negotiation with red lines in tact is testament to this power, not to mention the fact that the commissioner in charge of trade is Peter Mandelson. The British government has the opportunity and the ability to lead the EU in calling for union-wide engagement with the unethical trade in seal products.

By ending this trade across Europe, a clear signal would be sent outlining the union as a market place for ethically sound goods. Trade offers Europe a key tool to alter habits and put pressure on the fishermen and the Canadian government that recurrently participate in the seal cull. Britain should be actively calling for this tool to be used and has little excuse not to.