HALIFAX—Canada’s bid to challenge the European Union’s ban on seal products through the World Trade Organization is receiving support from an unlikely corner of the globe.
Stephen Scott, a partner in an 80-year-old family business in Edinburgh, Scotland, says he and his father have signed on to the WTO challenge because the ban has forced W.E. Scott & Son to stop making their most popular product.
The firm is one of Scotland’s largest suppliers of sporrans, the belted pouch men wear in front of their traditional Highland kilts.
Scott says the sporrans he sells are made from several types of skins, but the most sought after were the classier, more expensive models made from Canadian grey seal pelts.
“It’s always been one of the nicest skins to use and it really looks the best,” he said, adding that sealskin sporrans are typically worn with full Highland dress at weddings and other formal events.
The tradition dates back more than a century.
But the EU ban, which went into effect in 2010, has cut off the company’s supply, ending production of that line. Getting substitute sealskins is impossible because there hasn’t been a commercial grey seal hunt in Europe since the 1970s, he said.
“It’s part of our Scottish heritage—material that we’ve always used,” Scott said in a recent interview from Edinburgh. “[The ban] has had catastrophic consequences.”
The company has been forced to lay off three of its seven staff members.
“In the grand scheme of things, we’re a small, family run business—we need all of us together as a team to make things work,” he said in a thick brogue.
In Canada, a full-dress sealskin sporran with decorative clasp typically costs between $200 and $400. But prices often reach beyond $4,000 for vintage examples with solid silver cantles and engraved clan crests.
Today, dress sporrans from Scotland are usually made from cowhide or horsehide.
Robert Cahill, executive director of the Fur Institute of Canada, said Scott’s plight shows how the impact of the EU ban has spread well beyond Canada’s borders.
“There’s markets all around the world for all kinds of uses of the seal pelts, for fur and leather products,” Cahill said in an interview from Ottawa.
Aside from sporrans, the EU has also effectively banned the use of Canadian seal oil as a source of Omega 3 fatty acids, a $10-billion branch of the health-food business in Europe, Cahill says.
However, Scott says Canada’s WTO challenge—presented earlier this week at a two-day hearing in Geneva—has little chance of winning.
“The EU have made up their minds and I don’t think any influence is going to change that,” he said.
“Every step you take, the European government seems to have the final say without listening to everyone else’s views.”
As for Canada, the federal government is pressing ahead with a case that could take years to settle.
Last month, Canada’s embattled sealing industry was dealt another blow when the European General Court dismissed a Canadian challenge of the EU ban.
The court in Luxembourg said the legislation is valid because it fairly harmonizes the EU market while protecting the economic and social interests of Inuit communities through a specific exemption.
With files from The Canadian Press