Contentious Canada Seal Hunt Begins

Vessels pursuing seals maneuvered through heavy ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Friday at the start of the largest marine mammal hunt in the world.

Only a few seals had been killed so far, said Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokesman Phil Jenkins said, noting that the ice had hampered about 16 vessels and kept the sealers "quite a distance from a herd."

This year's total allowable catch has been set at 275,000 seals, up from 270,000 last year. The total allowable catch was 335,000 two years ago, but poor ice conditions led to the change last year.

Animal rights groups with observer permits were expected to monitor the hunt later Friday. They say the seal hunt is cruel, difficult to monitor and ravages the seal population.

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.

This year, hunters will take an extra step to make sure the seals are dead before skinning them. Hunters will be required to sever the arteries under a seal's flippers, a recommendation made in a European Union report released in December.

Fishermen sell seal pelts mostly to the fashion industry in Norway, Russia and China, as well as blubber for oil, earning about $78 for each seal. The 2006 hunt brought in about $25 million.

The United States has banned Canadian seal products since 1972. The Netherlands and Belgium also ban seal products. The European Union is considering a ban on all seal products, having outlawed the sale of the white pelts of baby seals in 1983.

Seventy percent of the seals will be killed in an area off Newfoundland's north coast known as the Front. The rest will be taken in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the first stage of the hunt. The hunt continues until the quota is met or if unsafe conditions require its early end.

Registered hunters in Canada are not allowed to kill seal pups that have not molted their downy white fur, typically when 10 to 21 days old.

The fisheries department estimated the total harp seal population to be 5.9 million in 2004, the last time it conducted a survey. The government says there were about 1.8 million seals in the 1970s, and the population rebounded after Canada started managing the hunts.