The European Union is considering trade sanctions against Canada in what would be the most significant challenge yet to the country's annual seal cull, due to start later this week.
Stavros Dimas, the EU's commissioner for the environment, has said he would soon be making proposals just as the Canadian government sets this year's quota of 275,000 young harp seals to be shot or cudgelled with sharpened clubs, then skinned for their pelts.
A high proportion of the white pelts pass through European ports on their way to customers in Russia and China.
Mr Dimas would be putting forward suggestions, "based on how we see the ban being implemented", said a spokeswoman yesterday.
"The commissioner is very concerned at the inhumane way that baby seals are killed," said a spokeswoman for Mr Dimas.
"Last year, we sent a team of experts to observe the cull who were shunned by the sealers and not allowed on the boats. What the team saw did not alleviate the commissioner's worries."
Animal welfare groups have been campaigning for years to halt the cull, pointing out that the so-called "hakapiks" used to belabour the animals rarely kill them outright and many are consequently skinned alive.
The sealers and the Canadian government point out that slaughter of the newborn "whitecoats", which feature in many of the emotive campaign advertisements used to alert the public to the cull, has been banned for years.
Campaigners retort that this still permits the killing of seals less than three weeks old. The import of seal products is already banned by Belgium and the Netherlands, and bans are under consideration by Germany, Italy and Austria. A ban on imports by the EU as a whole could have a dramatic effect on the trade, which is worth more than NZ$24m each year.
Sheryl Fink, a senior researcher with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the quota could not be justified.
"All recent evidence indicates that the market for seal fur is saturated," she said.
This year, the Canadian government has required sealers to sign up to recommendations of the International Veterinarians' Working Group intended to address the complaints of cruelty lodged by opponents.
A Canadian fisheries spokesman, Phil Jenkins, said this would oblige them to "ensure beyond any possible doubt that a seal is dead before it's skinned".
He denied that he had been pushed into implementing the stricter rules by the threat of an EU ban.
After striking or shooting a seal, the sealers must now check the animal's pupils for a blinking reflex and slit the arteries under the flippers before skinning.
He told Agence France-Presse: "In almost all cases the first strike of a hakapik or a shot of a rifle is enough. But we want to make sure [it's dead]."
Canada banned the killing of seals younger than 12 days in 1987, at which the protests died down.
The issue re-emerged in 2003 after the government announced a huge cull of 975,000 seals. The World Wide Fund for Nature has denied that the harp seal population is endangered, and the Canadian government insists that the trade is vital for the economic survival of Atlantic coast communities
- THE INDEPENDENT