IMAGE: SEAL PUP AND MOM
David Boily  /  AFP—Getty Images
A pup harp seal and its mother are seen March 3 on an ice floe off the coast of Canada's Magdalen Islands.
updated 3/11/2008 1:28:58 PM ET 2008-03-11T17:28:58

Canadian fishermen have been granted a slight increase in the number of harp seals they will be allowed to hunt this year, the government announced.

Animal welfare groups condemned the government's decision.

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

Seventy percent of the seals will be taken in an area off Newfoundland's north coast known as the Front, while 30 percent will be taken in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Ottawa says the opening date of the seal hunt will be announced in the coming weeks.

"The seal hunt is an economic mainstay for numerous rural communities in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the North," Federal Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn said in a statement Monday.

"It's with these people in mind we make decisions based on science to help maintain an economically viable and sustainable seal hunt."

Angry activists
But animal rights groups quickly criticized this year's quota.

"Quite frankly, I'm stunned," Sheryl Fink, a senior researcher with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in a statement.

"There is absolutely no way this increase in quota can possibly be justified. The science doesn't support it, the markets can't support it, and the Canadian public won't support it."

The Humane Society of the United States attacked the announcement as an attempt to pander to the sealing industry.

Animal rights groups say the largest marine mammal hunt in the world is cruel, difficult to monitor, ravages the seal population and doesn't provide a lot of money for sealers.

But sealers and the federal Fisheries Department have defended the hunt as sustainable, humane, well-managed and a necessary source of income for hunters.

Seal population has risen
The department estimated the total harp seal population to be 5.5 million in 2004, the last time they conducted a seal population survey.

The government says there were about 1.8 million seals in the 1970s. The population rebounded after Canada started managing its seal hunts.

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 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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