The federal government plans to appeal a ruling by the World Trade Organization that a European Union ban on seal products undermines international trade obligations but is justified due to “public moral concerns” over the animals’ welfare.

The ruling was hailed by animal rights’ activists but panned by advocates of Canada’s seal hunt, saying the ban contravenes trade regulations and discriminates against Inuit peoples.

On Monday, the WTO issued its ruling in the years-long dispute, saying that while the ban largely conforms to international trade rules, it does contain inconsistencies that need fixing.

For example, exceptions for aboriginal hunts are “not equally available to all Inuit or indigenous communities” and are “not designed and applied in an even-handed manner.”

But the WTO also found that the ban “fulfills the objective of addressing the EU public moral concerns on seal welfare to a certain extent, and no alternative measure has been demonstrated to make an equivalent or greater contribution” to that goal.

Canada has 60 days to file an appeal, and a statement issued by the office of International Trade Minister Ed Fast Monday morning said Canada “will appeal to the WTO Appellate Body any findings that would allow this unfair ban to continue.

“The WTO panel confirmed Canada’s long-standing position that the EU ban is discriminatory and treats Canadian seal products unfairly. However, the panel also took the view that such a ban can be justified due to some of the public’s concerns regarding seal harvesting.”

The statement went on to say that Canada “remains steadfast in its position that the seal harvest is a humane, sustainable and well-regulated activity. Any views to the contrary are based on myths and misinformation and the panels’ findings should be of concern to all WTO members.”

Fisheries Minister Gail Shea stood in the House of Commons Monday afternoon to confirm the government’s decision, saying the ban is “unfair and discriminatory towards Canada.”

“We call on the Liberals and the NDP to support the government’s decision to appeal this unfair and incorrect ruling,” she said during question period.

The EU ban exempts seal products from hunts by Inuit and other aboriginal communities. Canada’s Inuit leaders also released a statement Monday to express their “disappointment” at the WTO ruling, although the statement noted that the WTO still found the exemption for aboriginal hunts is not fairly applied.

“Inuit have always maintained that the so-called Inuit exemption is an empty box. But our goal from the beginning has been to overturn the ban itself, not merely to modify the terms of the exemption,” Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said in the statement.

“The ban runs contrary to principles of fair trade, and it is truly inexplicable that the WTO did not dismiss outright the EU’s Orwellian ‘moral grounds’ justification of this outrageous trade impediment.”

Meanwhile, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) released a statement to say it is “pleased” with the WTO’s decision.

"This decision is welcomed, and it is significant in that the World Trade Organization is recognizing animal welfare as a public morals concern that can be legitimately protected through measures such as trade bans." said Sheryl Fink, director of IFAW's Seal Campaign.

“The WTO ruling should send a strong message to the Canadian government and sealing industry. Concerns over the way seals are killed in commercial hunts are found to be justified, and countries may protect their consumers from these concerns by regulating trade in seal products." Fink said.

The ruling came from a 2009 decision by the EU to ban all seal product imports, with an exception for products resulting from Inuit and aboriginal hunts. The ban came into effect in August 2010.

Canada and Norway appealed the ban to the WTO, which convened a trade dispute panel to review the ban and the challenge.

Canada’s appeal will likely be heard early next year.

Canada is among a handful of countries that has a commercial seal hunt, including Norway and Greenland. Last spring’s commercial seal hunt off the coast of Newfoundland netted about 91,000 harp seals, far fewer than the federal quota of 400,000.

The chair of the Seals and Sealing Network said Monday afternoon he “condemns” the WTO report.

“The decision to uphold the current ban on seal products throughout the European Union both threatens the livelihood of people in coastal communities and jeopardizes wild fish stocks in Canada and in other jurisdictions around the world,” Dion Dakins told reporters.

Dakins said the report is “particularly hypocritical, given that Canada has the highest standards for our animal welfare practices in the world.”

Dakins also warned that the WTO’s findings on seal products could impact other food industries.

“The decision to uphold the ban should be taken very seriously by all sustainable use industries, as it may particularly have broad and unintended impacts for other trade sectors in Canada,” he said.

“Where do we draw the line on right versus wrong or good versus bad when it comes to the products of living resources?”

With files from The Canadian Press