updated 4/4/2007 9:34:14 PM ET 2007-04-05T01:34:14

Thousands fewer seals were killed in the first phase of Canada's controversial hunt compared to previous years, indicating that melting ice has depleted much of the herd in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, an official said Wednesday.

About 860 seals were killed during the three-day first phase that ended Wednesday night, said Fisheries Department spokesman Phil Jenkins, calling the catch "very low."

Unusually warm weather has melted or thinned out much of the ice in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, drowning thousands of baby seals, Jenkins said. Seals cannot swim during the first few weeks of life.

The quota for all three phases of this year's seal hunt is 270,000 seals. That is 65,000 fewer than last year, a change imposed mainly because of the toll from the ice conditions.

The government estimated the seal population in Canada at about 5.5 million in 2004. The Fisheries Department will conduct the next seal population survey next year to assess the impact of the ice conditions.

Jenkins said there were about 1.8 million seals in the 1970s. The population rebounded after Candada started managing its seal hunts.

"It's a conservation success story," Jenkins said. "It's too bad that it's drowned out by emotional rhetoric of animal and welfare groups."

Second phase just started
The largest concentration of seals in the Gulf is in the northern part, where the second phase of the hunt began Wednesday. Ice conditions are normal in the north, and thousands of seals are expected to be killed there.

Bad weather and poor visibility limited the hunt to about 12 boats at the start of the second phase, Jenkins said.

About 70 percent of the seals sought in Canadian waters will be taken in the third stage off northern Newfoundland. An opening date has yet to be announced.

Animal welfare groups have condemned the government's decision to allow a hunt in the southern region.

Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society criticized the government for not issuing observer permits for the hunt in the southern Gulf.

"To us, that says there's something the Canadian government didn't want the public to see," Aldworth said. "In this case, I believe it was the image of just a few seal pups clinging to tiny pans of ice and seal hunters still coming with clubs and guns and shooting and killing every last pup they could find."

Fishermen sell seal pelts mostly for the fashion industry in Norway, Russia and China, as well as blubber for oil, earning about $78 per seal.

The hunt has been condemned by some celebrities, notably Paul McCartney, as well as French film legend Brigitte Bardot and actress Pamela Anderson.

The Canadian government and isolated fishing communities say they need the supplemental income because cod stocks have dwindled. The slaughter of some 335,000 seals in 2006 brought about $25 million.

The United States has banned Canadian seal products since 1972 and the European Union banned the white pelts of baby seals in 1983.

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

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