IMAGE: BOAT IN SEAL HUNT AREA
Paul Darrow  /  Reuters
Fishing boats like this one, seen Friday in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, will take Canadian hunters to ice floes for the annual seal hunt that begins Saturday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 3/24/2006 1:16:44 PM ET 2006-03-24T18:16:44

Canada’s contentious seal hunt begins Saturday in the frozen ice floes off the Gulf of St. Lawrence, federal fisheries officials announced, as animal-rights activists gear up for their annual protests.

Hunters usually take between five and eight days to meet their quota but officials say the ice is much more broken up than usual and the seals are very scattered.

“It will be slower ... this will drag on,” said Roger Simon of the federal fisheries ministry.

The second and larger stage of the hunt, which takes place off the coast of Newfoundland, will start April 4 and last for most of the month.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokesman Phil Jenkins said while ice conditions are poor in the southern portion of the gulf — between the mainland of Quebec and the Atlantic Ocean — many seals have been spotted farther north.

The government insists the country’s seal population is thriving, at nearly 6 million, and the annual hunt supplements the incomes of the isolated fishing communities in Quebec and Newfoundland.

But animal-rights activists and celebrities, including Paul McCartney and Brigitte Bardot, have placed Canada under an unpopular global spotlight, calling the world’s largest seal hunt barbaric and unnecessary in a developed nation.

Registered hunters are not allowed to kill the pups before they molt their downy white fur, typically when they’re 10 days to three weeks old.

“The animals are only weeks old, its cruel, they have yet to meet maturation,” deplored Chris Cutter of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which has invited a parliamentarian from Germany, currently considering a ban of seal products, to witness the hunt.

IMAGE: CANADA SEAL
Jonathan Hayward  /  AP
A young harp seal sits on an ice floe in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Tuesday.
Boycotts have worked in the past, Cutter notes, after countries banned the import of pelts from white coat seals, causing their market to collapse.

The United States banned Canadian seals products in 1972, and a ban on importing the white pelts of seal pups was implemented by the European Community in 1983.

The quota for the hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is 91,000 harp seals. When the hunt moves to Newfoundland in April, up to 325,000 seals can be killed this year.

About 320,000 seals pups were killed last year, bringing the local fishermen 14.5 million.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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