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Groups prepare for contested seal hunt

Protesters, celebrities and fishermen were gearing up for Canada's hotly debated seal hunt, set to get under way later this week.
A harp seal sits on a ice pan in the Gulf of St. Lawrence Tuesday. The annual hunt, set to begin on the ice floes sometime this week, will harvest 325,000 animals this year. Jonathan Hayward / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Protesters, celebrities and fishermen were gearing up for Canada's hotly debated seal hunt, set to get under way later this week in the gulf off the Atlantic Ocean.

Federal Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn has given a cold shoulder to French film legend Brigitte Bardot, who intends to visit Ottawa on Wednesday to implore the federal government to end the regulated slaughter of some 325,000 harp seals.

Hearn told the St. John's Telegram in Newfoundland, where the largest leg of the hunt takes place, that he turned down a request by Bardot to meet during her visit.

"It just furthers their cause," Hearn said, referring to the attention such a meeting would generate for the hunt's opponents.

Bardot made waves in the 1970s when she first came to Canada to protest the annual hunt by posing with the adorable doe-eyed pups.  Many celebrities, including Paul McCartney, have their pictures taken with the fluffy white newborns, though Canada years ago banned the killing of the pups until after they molt and lose their white fur.

Bardot, making her first trip back to Canada in nearly 30 years — said she would be joined at a news conference in the federal capital by American actress Persia White, of the TV show "Girlfriends," and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Founder Captain Paul Watson.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper also turned down a meeting with the former sex symbol.

"My responsibilities are about the ... needs of Canadians," he said. "I don't intend to participate in the actions of famous people for publicity."

Former Beatle McCartney and his wife, Heather Mills McCartney, took to the ice floes off the Atlantic Ocean two weeks ago to frolic with seal pups and highlight the work of anti-seal hunt efforts by the Humane Society and other animal protection groups.

The McCartneys made a passionate appeal against the hunt, saying officials should consider developing eco-tourism in place of the hunt, which he described as brutal and "a stain on the character of the Canadian people."

Fisheries officials and sealers say the annual hunt provides badly needed income for the isolated fishing communities in Atlantic Canada, as well as food and shelter for the aboriginal Inuits in the Arctic North.

About 320,000 seals pups were killed during the hunt last year, bringing the local fishermen $14.5 million (U.S.) in supplemental income during the winter off-season.  Federal officials say fishing communities of Quebec and Newfoundland, whose livelihoods were devastated when the Atlantic cod stocks dried up in the 1990s, earn 25 percent to 40 percent of their annual income by selling the seal pelts and blubber for about $70 each.

The dates for the spring leg of the hunt have yet to be announced as the unseasonably mild temperatures in Atlantic Canada have made the ice thin. But sealers and federal fisheries officials believe it will get under way by Friday or Saturday. It can last from three to 10 days, depending on hunting conditions.

The quota for the hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is 91,000 harp seals.

The bulk of the seal hunt takes place in April, when it moves the north coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, where sealers can take 224,000 animals this year.

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.