Ever since the European Union became more and more interested in Arctic affairs, its related Arctic storyline has been dominated by two interrelated lines of action: the seemingly never-ending debate on Arctic Council observer status and the infamous EU seal ban.
By adopting its Regulation 1007/2009 on trade in seal products in September 2009, the Union banned seal products, imported for commercial purposes, from its internal market. Although products originating from indigenous subsistence hunting remained to be placed on the single market, the regulation caused an Arctic outcry and evidentially has had negative effects on Inuit livelihoods.
High North News discussed the EU’s seal regime with Nikolas Sellheim from the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. His dissertation on this topic, entitled “Legislating the Blind Spot: The EU Seal Regime and the Newfoundland seal hunt” can be download here.
HNN: What were the key characteristics of the 2009 seal and what happened afterwards?
Sellheim: To put it simply, regulation (EC) No 1007/2009 of 16 September 2009 banned the trade of seal products onto the Community single market. However, the ban also consisted of several conditions that allowed the placing on the market of seal products. These three exemptions included 1) products that resulted from traditional hunts conducted by Inuit and other indigenous communities, 2) goods that have been imported to the European Union for the personal use of travellers, and 3) imports that resulted from by-products of hunting and conducted for sustainable marine resource management purposes only.
Already shortly after the regulation has been adopted, both Canada and Norway initiated proceedings before the World Trade Organization (WTO) to overturn the ban. The countries argued that the EU was being discriminatory against Canadian and Norwegian producers of seal products. The WTO’s Appellate Body issued its final ruling in May 2014 and basically rejected the claims of the two Arctic states. It accepted that the ban pursues a legitimate objective (which are public moral concerns on seal welfare) and is not more trade restrictive than necessary. Yet, it also found that products from Greenland were treated more favourably than seal products from Canada through the exception for products derived from Inuit hunts.
In order to reflect the WTO ruling, the ban was eventually amended in 2015. Hence, the European Commission adopted its Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2015/1850 of 13 October 2015. This amendment basically scrapped the third exemption concerning products originating from by-products of hunting and also set higher animal welfare standards to products, which result from hunts traditionally conducted by Inuit and other indigenous communities.
HNN: When scrutinising Regulation 1007/2009, it seems that the issue of animal welfare constituted a pivotal element that eventually triggered the legislative process.
Sellheim: Yes, correct but only at first glance. When reading the Regulation one could definitely consider the welfare of seals playing a prominent role. It clearly recognised seals as “sentient beings that can experience pain, distress, fear and other forms of suffering”. The European Parliament already requested the Commission in 2006 to draft a regulation to ban the import, export and sale of all harp and hooded seal products. Back in 2006 animal welfare concerns were key in the Parliamentarians’ considerations to end the trade in seal products and were also reiterated in the EP resolution on a Community Action Plan on the Protection and Welfare of Animals 2006–2010.
Accordingly, the Regulation followed the longer-standing policy of the EU to consider the well-being of animals with the possibility of establishing trade barriers based on animal welfare concerns. In that regard, one can also observe a normative rejection of seal hunting by most Parliamentarians, which was strongly influenced by the lobby work of several animal welfare groups such as Human Society International.
Yet, in my opinion, the animal welfare argumentation is not watertight and essentially reveals the Union’s very own double standards concerning the well-being of animals as it remains unclear what the moral statement in the regime entails. A very simple question illustrates this clear case of European double standards: why does European law commonly accept clubbing as proper killing method of animals (as for instance stipulated in Regulation 1099/2009 on the Protection of Animals at the Time of Killing) but not in the case of seals? Is the clubbing of, for example, a piglet more legitimate and morally valid than clubbing a seal?
Moreover, the animal welfare concern does not take into consideration the individual seal, as it does with the keeping and farming of chickens or pigs. Eventually one has to ask who actually defines and quantifies “cruelty”?
HNN: But if animal welfare concerns were not at the forefront, what else drove the EU to implement the seal ban?
Sellheim: Indeed, in my opinion the general idea was neither the improvement of animal welfare, nor ending the killing of seals as such, but appears to be ending the killing of seals for commercial purposes. And the Canadian case of Newfoundland clearly exemplifies that this goal was attained. While in 2006 almost 300,000 seals were landed, generating around 30 million Canadian dollars with an average of about 102 dollars per seal, a massive drop occurred in 2007 when the legislative process for a ban was in full progress. The following year around the same number of seals of around 200.000 was caught while the average price dropped to 32 dollars, amounting to a landed value of 6.6 million dollars. In the adoption year of the ban, 2009, the number of seals dropped to 53,531, generating merely 857,000 dollars with an average of 17 dollars per seal. Since then, the average price has slightly increased and amounted to 19 dollars in 2011, with a number of seals ranging at around 38,000 with a landed value of 735,000 dollars. In 2012, almost 70,000 seals at an average of 24 dollars were landed, producing 1.6 million dollars. For 2013, nearly 90,000 seals were landed, generating around 2.9 million dollars with an average value of approximately 33 dollars.
Also in Greenland, although being a slightly different case due to a higher subsidiaries by the Greenlandic government, the effects of the policy could be felt drastically. The number of sold seal skins dropped significantly with associated economic losses in spite of an increase in the average price for seal skins, causing an increase in governmental subsidies for communities dependent on the trade in seal products. The latest available catch data from 2014 shows that between 2004 and 2014 the number of hunted seals decreased from 157,697 to 88.811. This reduced the annual turnover of 63 million DKK in 2005 to 9.1 million DKK in 2011 and a bisection of the number of employees from 70 to 38.
HNN: Looking back and looking ahead. What is your main conclusion on the EU’s seal ban and how do you see its future?Sellheim: In a nutshell, I would argue that the Union’s 2009 seal ban was based on misinformation within the hallways of European power and/or proper lobbying by interested NGOs. Undoubtedly, the ban has had negative effects on indigenous communities in both Canada and Greenland. And whether the amendments to the regime following the WTO ruling will make the situation better remains to be seen — after all, indigenous hunts are now to follow high animal welfare standards. Who is to control that and how? And isn’t this exactly the patronising behaviour that Inuit have always criticised? What happens when, or better if, new markets, for example in Asia, open remains to be seen. But I could imagine that the neglect for the fostering of animal welfare standards in all hunts, not just in indigenous hunts, by inserting the respective clauses in the regime will in the longer run not be positive for the seals nor for the local population. But of course the former is speculation. The latter is, unfortunately, already a fact.