Sealers took to the thawing ice floes off the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday, the first day of Canada's contentious seal hunt, confronting animal rights activists who claim the annual cull is cruel.

Protesters dodged flying seal guts pitched at them by angry hunters on the first day of the spring leg of the world's largest seal slaughter.

Reporters and activists tried to get as close as permitted to the hunt on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but their presence infuriated sealers hunting for scarce animals on small, drifting ice pans.

At one point, a sealing vessel charged up to a small inflatable Zodiac boat carrying protesters, and a fisherman flung seal intestines at the observers.

"They threw carcasses at our Zodiac and they came rushing at us in their boat and tried to capsize us in the wake," Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society told The Associated Press. "This is standard behavior out here; the sealers feel that they're completely above the law."

The fishermen in the isolated island communities of Quebec and Newfoundland say the hunt supplements their meager winter incomes, particularly since cod stocks have dwindled dramatically during the past decade. They resent animal-rights activists, who they say have little understanding of their centuries-old traditions.

The hunt brought $14.5 million in revenue last year, after some 325,000 seals were slaughtered. Fishermen sell their pelts, mostly for the fashion industry in Norway, Russia and China, as well as blubber for oil, earning about $60 per seal.

The federal government maintains Canada's seal population is healthy and abundant, with a population of nearly 6 million in the Arctic north and maritime provinces.

Regulations require the sealers to quickly kill the seals with a pick or bullet to the brain. The pups also must be over 2-3 weeks old and have shed their white downy fur before being killed.

Mark Small, president of the Northeast Coast Sealers Coop, has been sealing off Newfoundland for about 40 years. He said the activists do not understand how important the hunt is to family fishermen.

"I think the Canadian public realizes these are coastal people who live off the sea and depend on the hunt to survive in small communities where the fish stocks are not there," Small told the AP in a telephone interview from St. Johns.

Animal rights activists claim the fishermen often skin the seals alive or leave some pups to die if they are not immediately knocked unconscious.

The Humane Society has had high-profile allies in celebrities like Paul McCartney and his wife, Heather Mills McCartney, who traveled to the Gulf of St. Lawrence two weeks ago to pose with the newborn pups.

In a video message from London, the McCartneys proposed that Canada could end the slaughter by offering a license buyback program to sealers.

The French film legend Brigitte Bardot came to Ottawa earlier this week. She said she was stunned that a developed nation would still let such a practice continue, three decades after she first came to Canada to frolic with some pups in an attempt to end the slaughter.

The unseasonably mild temperatures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have made the ice thin and many of the harp seal pups appear to have drowned, prompting protesters to call for the quota of 325,000 kills to be lowered to compensate for the natural deaths.

John Grandy, a veteran animal-rights activist on board a plane chartered by the Humane Society to monitor the hunt and report any abuses, also said fewer pups were on the ice this year.

"That tells us many have died, they fell through before they could swim," Grandy said.

Roger Simon, spokesman for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, disputed concerns about a high natural seal mortality this year.

"There will always be some mortality and some drowning," Simon told The Canadian Press.

Aboriginal and Inuit hunters began the commercial kill in November in Canada's frozen Arctic waters; the spring leg will move off the coast of Newfoundland in April. The St. Lawrence hunt can last from three to 10 days, depending on hunting conditions.

Martin Dufour, a helicopter pilot from Quebec who was ferrying the Humane Society protesters out to the ice, said he was not opposed to the hunt, only the way in which the seals are killed.

"I don't know why they use the picks," he said. "It's a savage way and the seals are too young."

The hunters prefer to use spiked clubs called hakapiks to crush the seals' skulls, rather than possibly damage the pelts with bullet holes.