The first stage of Canada's controversial annual harp seal hunt is likely to be scrapped because the ice floes where pups are born have broken up and many animals have drowned, officials and animal rights activists said on Tuesday.
The first part of the hunt, which had been due to start on Wednesday, occurs in the Gulf of St Lawrence to the south of the Magdalen Islands on Canada's East Coast. Hunters move across the ice floes, shooting and clubbing to death young seals.
Canada's federal fisheries ministry, which oversees the hunt, said the pups had been born as usual this year but the ice floes had then been blown far out to sea and started to break up before the seals learned how to swim properly.
"This is the first time I've ever seen this in 25 years ... for sure there is increased mortality," fisheries spokesman Roger Simon said from the Magdalen Islands.
"There is ice (south of the islands) but there are no seals on that ice," he added, saying the animals were now well out of the range of most of the hunters' vessels.
Activists say the hunt is cruel and unnecessary and want it to be scrapped. Ottawa is likely to spell out this week how many seals may be killed.
Canada says the seal population is a healthy 5.5 million animals and says the cull is needed to keep numbers under control. Last year's overall quota was 325,000 seals.
Warming to blame?
The International Fund for Animal Welfare said unusually warm weather meant the ice cover south of the Magdalen Islands was almost completely missing, adding it feared thousands of harp seal pups had drowned.
"The conditions this year are disastrous. I've surveyed this region for six years and I haven't seen anything like this," said IFAW researcher Sheryl Fink.
Fink attributed the bad season to global warming. "We may not be able to save these seals from the effects of global warming," she said, "but the Canadian government can save the survivors from being hunted. I can only hope that they will do the right thing and cancel the hunt."
Canada did not associate the seals' plight with global warming, but its scientists as well as other researchers have documented a decline in sea ice over the years.
Simon said many of the seals had been blown due east into the Cabot Strait between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Some of them might eventually make their way back to the Magdalen Islands, he added.
"There may be some hunting on drifting ice floes but if there is, we don't expect it to be very significant," he said.
Fink told Reuters she had spent two days flying over the Cabot Strait and had spotted very few seals.
"There is wide open water and almost no seals," she said. "I only saw a handful of adult harp seals and even fewer pups, where normally we should be seeing thousands and thousands of seals."
Ice average in other hunt areas
The main part of the hunt takes place in April off the northern and western coasts of Newfoundland, where ice conditions are average, Simon said.
Fishermen sell seal pelts, mostly for the fashion industry in Norway, Russia and China, as well as blubber for oil, earning about $60 per seal.
The European Union's executive commission announced earlier this month it had ordered a study to establish whether seal hunting is carried out in a humane manner, but rejected calls for an immediate EU-wide ban on the import of seal fur products.
The Canadian government and isolated fishing communities insist they need the supplemental income from the hunt, since cod stocks have dwindled. The slaughter of some 320,000 seals in 2005 brought in $14.5 million in revenue.