Norway scraps controversial seal hunting subsidy

Oslo (AFP) - Norway's much-criticised commercial seal hunt could grind to a halt following parliament's decision to scrap a hefty subsidy for the controversial practice.

A majority of lawmakers voted late Thursday to cull a 12-million-kroner (1.3-million-euro, $1.6-million) subsidy for the seal hunt from the 2015 budget.

Governmental support represents up to 80 percent of seal hunters' revenue.

"Parliament has not decided to ban the seal hunt, but we fear that the hunt will actually disappear along with the subsidies," said Geir Pollestad, head of the committee on trade and fisheries, whose party opposes abolishing public aid.

The seal hunt is of limited importance to Norway's economy, but supporters of the practice say it is steeped in tradition and claim it's a necessary means of controlling seal populations.

But the activity has provoked international controversy and diplomatic and trade problems for Norway.

In 2010 the EU introduced an embargo on products from the commercial seal hunt in Norway and Canada, justifying the measures on public outrage over what was considered brutality on the animals.

Seals are usually hunted with rifles and with so-called "hakapiks" -- sticks fitted with a metal head to deal a fast, lethal blow to the animal.

Images of baby seals with snow white fur and huge black eyes being slaughtered on the ice have played a large part in mobilising public sentiment against the hunt, even though Norway prohibits catching animals of that age.

- Industry in 'difficult situation' -

Together with Canada -- the world's top seal-hunting nation –- Norway has long fought against the EU embargo, which exempts only hunting by indigenous peoples.

However, it has all been in vain: In May, the World Trade Organisation turned down the two nations' appeal for the second time.

"The industry is in a difficult situation following the end of trade in seal products with the EU," Pollestad said. Norway is not a member of the European Union.

Hunt supporters say seals are voracious consumers of fish and compete with the Nordic nation's fishermen for catches.

But Siri Martinsen, leader of Norwegian NGO Noah, said it was a "myth" that seal populations must be limited in order to preserve fish stocks.

"There is no direct link... the ocean's ecosystem is so complicated that we can't say two minus one equals one," she told AFP.

But in the end, budget constraints motivated Thursday's vote to end the subsidy.

With about 12,000 seals hunted every year, the government subsidy amounts to roughly 1,000 kroner (110 euro, $136) per animal.

Pollestad, an opposition politician, said he suspected the centre-right government had decided to discontinue the subsidies to "be popular" with the EU.

"It's suspicious when, from one year to another, we remove all subsidies to the industry," he said.

But Line Henriette Hjemdal of the Christian Democrats, an ally of the ruling coalition, denied that pressure from Brussels played a role in removing the subsidies.

"It's simply a matter of economics," she said.

- 'No longer necessary' -

Animal rights and environmental organisations hailed Oslo's decision.

"Greenpeace is happy that the Norwegian government has finally decided to stop subsidising an industry that clearly belongs to the past," said the leader of Greenpeace in Norway Truls Gulowsen.

"There's no reason that Norwegian taxpayers should subsidise people who slaughter animals in an objectionable manner just for their skin, and to make a product nobody wants," said Martinsen.

In Canada, the International Fund for Animal Welfare urged Ottawa to follow Norway's lead and also stop financing "an industry that is no longer necessary."

Canadian seal hunting association head Gil Theriault, however, told AFP the EU ban has already devastated the local industry.

"Seal pelts are worth almost nothing, about Can$30, because nobody is allowed to buy them," he said.

While commercial seal hunting, which takes place on the ice, may have taken a fatal blow in Norway, recreational seal hunting along the coastline is not affected by the parliament's vote.

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