Seal hunters return to the ice floes off Canada's (search) East Coast this Tuesday, with animal welfare activists vowing to vigorously protest the annual event that helps support the fishermen and some of the country's poorest communities along its coastlines.

The contentious harp seal hunt, the target of protests since the 1960s, begins about 12 days after the seal pups are born and their fur changes from white to gray. Animal rights activists say the pups are clubbed to death, but hunters insist they use rifles and spears and the pups die instantly.

Many countries, including the United States (search), still ban imports of seal products. The government says the hunt brings in badly needed income to its coastal communities, which earned about $16 million last year, primarily from pelt sales to Norway, Denmark and China.

Aboriginal and Inuit subsistence and commercial hunters begin the kill Nov. 15 in Canada's vast expanse of frozen Northern waters, which reach from the Yukon Territories near Alaska (search) through the Arctic Ocean and down into the North Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Labrador.

The spring leg of the commercial hunting season begins Tuesday in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and runs through May 15. Hunters were expected to kill more than 300,000 seals by the time a federal, three-year plan ends, allowing sealers to harvest a total of 975,000 seals since 2003.

Opponents of the hunt claim there's no scientific basis for killing the marine mammals.

A report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare says the harvest of up to 975,000 seals — which occurs over a three-year period — will damage the marine mammal population.

"Any pretense of a scientifically based ... hunt has been abandoned and Canada's commercial seal hunt has become — quite simply — a cull, designed more to achieve short-term political objectives than those of a biologically sustainable hunt," the report said.

The political goal is to appeal to fishermen who are angered over Ottawa's mismanagement of other fisheries, the report asserts.

However, fishermen participating in the hunt blame seals and their voracious appetites for the devastation of Canada's cod stocks, and argue a cull is exactly what is required.

Federal Fisheries Department officials say that with more than five million seals on the East Coast, triple what is was three decades ago, the hunt is sustainable.

"Canada's seal population is healthy and abundant," David Bevan, assistant deputy minister of fisheries and aquaculture, told The Canadian Press.

The anti-sealing movement scored major victories in the 1970s and 80s, convincing the United States and much of Europe to ban the import of pelts from white coat and so-called bluebacks, the young harp and hooded seals. The Canadian government in 1997 banned the killing of both and since then the anti-sealing movement has struggled.