IMAGE: Helicopter and ice-bound sealing boats
Aaron Beswick  /  AP
A Canadian Coast Guard helicopter sits on the ice near two ice-bound vessels on Wednesday off Newfoundland.
updated 4/18/2007 8:49:27 PM ET 2007-04-19T00:49:27

Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers smashed through a massive expanse of ice off Newfoundland's northeast coast Wednesday in a bid to free about 100 seal hunt vessels.

About 15 vessels were in danger of having the Atlantic ice pierce their hulls, said Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokesman Phil Jenkins. The thick, moving ice poses the danger of sandwiching and cracking the boats.

"There's an onshore wind that is compacting the ice," Jenkins said. "These boats are on their way back from sealing and then got stuck in the ice. One crew had to abandon their vessel and got picked up by the coast guard."

The Newfoundland part of Canada's controversial seal hunt is the third and largest stage of the hunt. The total quota for all three phases is 270,000 animals.

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 drawn widespread criticism, including from celebrities such as Paul McCartney and French actress Brigitte Bardot.

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

Brian Penney, a superintendent with the Coast Guard in Newfoundland and Labrador, said helicopters could be called in to rescue stranded crews as a northeast wind continues to jam the ice floes together.

Fishermen say it's rare when ice conditions are this bad.

"Ice conditions are some of the most severe we've seen in 25 to 30 years," said Frank Pinhorn, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association. "I've talked to a lot of sealers and they've got holes punched in their new boats and they're taking on water."

The coast guard is trying to get supplies to those vessels that are "in most dire straits," said Penney, who added that fuel and supplies are running low.

Penney said many of the crews are reluctant to abandon their vessels as most sealers consider that option a last resort.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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