April 1, 2014 7:08 pm
Updated: April 1, 2014 7:14 pm

Battleground shifts for Japanese whale hunt, Canadian seal hunt

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Watch above: Anti-whaling activists in Australia said they were “elated” after the future of Japanese whaling was thrown into doubt.

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The international court ruling that essentially ended Japan’s whale hunt won’t affect Canada’s equally contentious seal hunt, but it may be a sign that animal rights issues can be fought and won in courts, rather than with protests and picket lines.

Monday’s International Court of Justice decision found Japan’s “scientific” whaling program was not for research purposes and was illegal.

Animal rights groups that fought the hunt for more than a decade are heralding the court’s 12-4 vote against the hunt as a victory.

“[It shows] a lack of tolerance for the slaughter of marine mammals, which is not necessary in this day and age,” said Sheryl Fink, the director of Canadian wildlife campaigns at the International Fund for Wildlife (IFAW).

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While groups such as IFAW and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society can take credit for raising awareness and criticism of the whale hunt – and Canada’s seal hunt, for that matter – a University of Ottawa law professor said this ruling shows a shift in how international panels evaluate environmental and conservation issues.

“I think we’re really at the brink of a bit of a sea change, where you can no longer just ignore environmental protection objectives,” said Markus Gehring.

“In my mind, at least, there is no doubt that international courts and tribunals are moving to adopt more sustainable development-oriented arguments.”

He pointed out the significant difference between the Japanese whale hunt and Canada’s commercial seal hunt – the most obvious being that there are no strict international treaties regarding seal hunting as there are with whales.

A hunter heads towards a harp seal in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence March 25, 2009. (File photo)

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

But like Japan, Canada’s defence of the seal hunt has gone before an international body – the World Trade Organization.

Environment and Northern Economic Development Minister Leona Aglukkaq flew to Geneva last month to appeal the findings of a WTO decision that found the European Union’s import ban on seal products undermined trade agreements but was justified under “public moral concerns.”

The Appellate Body is expected to rule on Canada’s appeal later this month.

“Any politician or policymaker in Ottawa needs to be acutely aware that blatantly ignoring international environmental standards might be palatable in certain domestic circles, but will not be welcomed by international courts and tribunals,” Gehring said. He doubts the WTO’s Appellate Body will reverse the panel’s findings.

He added the seal hunt’s future will most likely hinge on economics, not international relations.

That’s something that Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson, a longtime opponent of the seal hunt, aims to capitalize on in the group’s campaign against the Canadian seal hunt.

“If we remove the market, then it removes the reason to kill seals,” Watson told Global News in a Skype interview. “That’s where the effort is being made right now – not on the ice but to undermine those markets.”

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Sea Shepherd and other conservation groups argue the commercial seal hunt is not economically sustainable and would not survive without government support. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans says it no longer subsidizes the hunt because it’s economically viable.

But the Canadian government financially supports the hunt in indirect ways, such as funding a project that will help offer seal products in Canadian grocery stores.

Keith Hutchings, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture, said the province’s seal industry can stand on its own and is growing, not faltering. And he says measures have been taken to ensure the hunt is carried out humanely.

Last spring’s commercial hunt off Newfoundland landed about 91,000 harp seals, up from 69,000 the year before but far short of the federal quota of 400,000, The Canadian Press reported.

The provincial government has provided economic support to the industry the last two years in the form of inventory financing that was paid back with prescribed interest each year, he explained.

Hutchings said the industry is thriving enough that the government won’t need to provide that financing this year.

But, the Newfoundland and Labrador government has promised $60,000 to support a campaign that will combat misconceptions around the seal industry.

He added that the EU ban “is not a showstopper for the industry, no matter what WTO rules or where that goes.”

Hutchings said he understands that people have their criticisms, but he said “we believe in what we’re doing.”

With files from The Canadian Press

© 2014 Shaw Media

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