Image: Harp seal pup lies in front of its mother
Paul Darrow  /  Reuters file
Canada's hunt comes three weeks after a European Parliament committee endorsed a bill to ban the import of seal products to the 27-member union.
updated 3/23/2009 3:50:08 PM ET 2009-03-23T19:50:08

Canada's annual seal hunt is under way amid continuing protests from animal rights activists and an international effort to ban imported seal products.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokesman Phil Jenkins said Monday about 20 sealing vessels have ventured out into the ice floes in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, while some land-based hunting is also under way.

This year's total allowable catch has been set at 280,000, up from 275,000 last year.

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

Supplemental income for some
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.

The department estimates the total harp seal population to be about 5.6 million. The government says there were about 1.8 million seals in the 1970s, and the population rebounded after Canada started managing the hunts.

"We have a humane, professionally run hunt," Jenkins said. "Any suggestion that harp seal herds are not being conserved properly is inaccurate information. This herd is in very good shape."

The start of the hunt comes three weeks after a European Parliament committee endorsed a bill to ban the import of seal products to the 27-member union. The same bill granted an exemption to Canada's Inuit to continue to trade seal products for cultural, educational or ceremonial purposes.

To become law the bill must be approved by the entire EU assembly and EU governments.

The committee's decision came despite an intense lobbying effort by Canadian politicians looking to convince the European body that the commercial seal hunt is humane.

Jenkins said Germany imported about $1.6 million in seal products in 2006 but said many EU countries don't import any Canadian seal products.

Jenkins said it's important to keep some European ports open, where many seal products stop on their way to other destinations. For example, a lot of it goes to Norway for processing before moving on to such markets as Russia, China and South Korea.

Many nations have banned seal products
The United States has banned Canadian seal products since 1972. The Netherlands and Belgium also ban seal products. The European Union outlawed the sale of the white pelts of baby seals in 1983 and Russia announced earlier this month that it would ban the hunting of baby seals.

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

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

Rebecca Aldworth, director of Humane Society International Canada, said weather conditions have so far made it impossible to get observer helicopters into the air.

EU ban could end hunt
Aldworth said a possible EU ban should prompt Canada to end the hunt.

"It's clear to me that change is in the air. This is my 11th year documenting the commercial seal hunt and I feel fairly confident that this may well be the last year that his slaughter goes on," Aldworth said.

"There is a growing perception that this is a dying industry. Now is the time for the federal government to take action to gracefully end this hunt by compensating the fisherman involved and allow Canada to stop a controversy that has haunted us for more than four decades."

Fishermen sell seal pelts mostly for the fashion industry in Norway, Russia and China, as well as blubber for oil. The 2006 take of some 335,000 seals brought in about $25 million.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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