CAP-AUX-MEULES, Quebec – Canada's annual seal hunt is set to get under way Monday despite the continuing outcry of animal rights activists and an international effort to ban imported seal products.
The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans said the smallest stage of the largest marine mammal hunt in the world will start in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.
This year's total allowable catch has been set at 280,000, up from 275,000 last year.
Seventy percent of the seals will be killed in an area off Newfoundland's north coast known as the Front, while 30 percent will be taken in the Gulf of St. Lawrence — the first stage of the hunt.
Rebecca Aldworth, director of Humane Society International Canada, said the world community is starting to move away from the commercial seal slaughter and her group will be there to monitor the activities.
"It's something we do every year. We come up here and we document what happens, but it never gets any easier," Aldworth said Sunday.
The start of the hunt comes three weeks after a European Parliament committee endorsed a bill that would impose a ban on the import of seal products to the 27-member union.
The same bill granted an exemption to Canada's Inuit to continue to trade seal products for cultural, educational or ceremonial purposes.
To become law the bill must be approved by the entire EU assembly and EU governments.
The committee's decision came despite an intense lobbying effort by Canadian politicians looking to convince the European body that the commercial seal hunt is humane.
Sheryl Fink, a researcher for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the move toward a ban is a sign the public's appetite for the seal hunt is waning.
"We are optimistic that we are starting to see a bit of change," said Fink, whose group also plans to monitor the hunt.
"I do think the writing's on the wall."
The United States has banned Canadian seal products since 1972. The Netherlands and Belgium also ban seal products. The European Union outlawed the sale of the white pelts of baby seals in 1983 and Russia announced earlier this month that it would ban the hunting of baby seals.
Registered hunters in Canada are now not allowed to kill seal pups that haven't molted their downy white fur, typically when 10 to 21 days old.
Animal rights groups say the seal hunt is cruel, difficult to monitor, ravages the seal population and doesn't provide a lot of money for sealers.
Sealers and the Fisheries Department defend the hunt as sustainable, humane and well-managed and say it provides supplemental income for isolated fishing communities that have been hurt by the decline in cod stocks.
Fishermen sell seal pelts mostly for the fashion industry in Norway, Russia and China, as well as blubber for oil. The 2006 take of some 335,000 seals brought in about $25 million.
The department estimates the total harp seal population to be more than 5.5 million. The government says there were about 1.8 million seals in the 1970s, and the population rebounded after Canada started managing the hunts.
Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, said the hunt is a significant source of income in many small, isolated coastal communities. She said they ensure the seal population is maintained.
The seal hunt may be controversial in many places but it has overwhelming support in Atlantic Canada.
Earlier this year, Canadian Senator Mac Harb introduced an anti-sealing bill but he couldn't find a single colleague in the 105-seat Senate willing to second his motion to so it wasn't debated. Some of Harb's colleagues with more than two decades' Senate experience remarked that they could not recall another instance where a bill failed to find a seconder.