Namibia's annual seal hunting season started this week, over the protests of animal rights activists who say the practice is cruel.

The government accused the activists of "deliberately distorting information," and said controlling the seal population was important for both the fishing industry and to the people who worked in jobs created by the hunt.

The sparsely populated southern African country is famous for its wildlife and desert scenes along its Atlantic coastline, known as the Skeleton Coast. The estimated 850,000 seals live on a group of islands off the southern coast.

The hunt started July 1 and runs for five months. The start follows an announcement by the government last week allowing for 6,000 adult males to be killed and upping the figure for pups by 20,000 from 2006 to 80,000.

The government argues the seals are consuming 900,000 tons of fish a year, more than a third of the fishing industry catch.

The fishing industry's contribution to the country's GDP was five percent in 2005, according to the Bank of Namibia's annual report of 2006.

The government maintains that the country's seal population is healthy and hunting will not lead to the extinction of the species. But Seal Alert calls the method — clubbing, to maintain the quality of skins — inhumane, and points to other aspects of the hunt it says are cruel or unnecessary.

Seal skins are used for leather goods and furs while the carcasses are disposed or turned into animal feed.

Seal Alert spokesman Francois Hugo also accused the government of barring press from the hunting areas to keep the world from focusing on it. Culling of seals in Namibia goes relatively unnoticed compared, for example, to the large hunts for the white harp seal in Canada.

Moses Maurihungirire, director of resources management in the fisheries and marine resources ministry, could not confirm there was an official ban on reporters in the hunting region. But reporters have found it difficult to get access to the remote and well-guarded sites.

"Namibia is culling nursing pups still suckling on their mothers' milk, which have nothing to do with fish," Seal Alert's Hugo said.

"The sealers are targeting male pups, which are bigger than the female. The irony of the matter is it is allowing the breeding cows to mate and raise their babies while consuming the same fish it says it is protecting. Namibia is just creating a surplus of female breeders," he added.

Nangula Mbako, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, said the government would not be deterred by Seal Alert's objections. He said Namibia used its natural resources in line with U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization guidelines.

He said nations' economies "are hinged on the exploitation of living natural and nonliving natural resources.

"The rural poor, women, children and the most vulnerable societies are the ones mostly affected by withholding exploitation of sustainably managed resources such as seals," said Mbako, adding that the seal culling industry created 149 jobs.

Hugo said the Namibian government was trying to push fish catches to levels of three decades ago of above 1.5 million tons a year.

"This is now impossible, as the government keeps on increasing the fishing quotas. It's not the seals that are at blame here. It's the many trawlers on its waters," he said.