Canada will request consultations at the World Trade Organization to challenge Belgium's ban of Canadian seal products, Ottawa said on Tuesday.

Belgium banned the importation and marketing of seal products in April 2007 to protest against what it sees as a cruel and unnecessary slaughter of seals, many of them just a few weeks old.

Canadian Trade Minister David Emerson said he believed the ban was a violation of Belgium's obligations under WTO rules. If consultations fail to resolve the dispute, Ottawa could request a WTO panel to settle the case.

The government defends the commercial seal hunt, which this year aims to kill 270,000 harp seals, as an important source of income for many in Eastern Canada.

Sealing is an important way of life for many Canadians, including Inuit and other aboriginal peoples, said Loyola Hearn, minister of fisheries and oceans.

Foreign Minister Peter Mackay said diplomatic pressure at the highest levels to dissuade Belgium from the ban had failed. It is regrettable that we have had to come to this point, but Canada's government will fight bans of this kind on all fronts -- people's livelihoods are at stake, he said.

Trade in seal products is small. Hunters made C$30 million ($28 million) in 2006 from pelts and there is a growing market for products such as seal oil.

Animal welfare activists, backed by celebrities like Paul McCartney and Brigitte Bardot, have long criticized the seal hunt, in which young harp seals are either clubbed to death on the ice or shot.

The European Union's executive commission, pressured by the European Parliament to ban all Canadian seal products, has also said it will investigate the hunt.

Ottawa says the seal population is a healthy 5.5 million animals and says the annual spring hunt is needed to keep seal numbers under control.