A coast guard icebreaker and a ship owned by an activist conservation group collided off Canada's east coast as tensions mounted over the country's annual seal hunt.
A spokesman for Canada's federal Fisheries Department said Monday that the icebreaker was "grazed" twice on Sunday by the Farley Mowat, a 177-foot vessel owned by the U.S.-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
But the conservation group countered that its ship was rammed twice by the 321-foot icebreaker Des Groseilliers about 40 miles north of Cape Breton.
"It rammed the stern end of the Farley Mowat and when the Farley Mowat was stopped, it came back and hit them again," Paul Watson, head of the society, said from Los Angeles. "It was twice so it was intentional."
Department spokesman Phil Jenkins denounced the claims, calling them "absolutely false" and part of a strategy to discredit the coast guard.
"The allegations that the Des Groseilliers rammed the Farley Mowat are complete nonsense. That's a piece of fiction," he said.
There was no damage done and no injuries were reported, Jenkins said.
The crew aboard the Farley Mowat said they were told by the coast guard not to approach an ice-covered area where seals were being slaughtered on the third day of the hunt.
Watson's group, which is monitoring and videotaping the hunt, said the coast guard ship rammed its vessel twice when the Farley Mowat did not comply.
Loyola Hearn, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, said the Farley Mowat maneuvered itself in front of the Coast Guard vessel to cause a collision between the two vessels.
"This organization is known to use this tactic to generate photo opportunities, which generate publicity and bolster their fundraising efforts - an action I find despicable," Hearn said in a statement.
The collision came just days after four seal hunters were killed when their small boat capsized as they were being towed by the coast guard icebreaker Sir William Alexander.
Witnesses have said the crew aboard the Alexander were not monitoring the tow as they plowed through thick ice floes north of Cape Breton.
Several agencies have said they will investigate the accident that killed the four sealers.
The seal hunting industry finds itself under pressure from animals rights activists who believe the hunt is cruel and badly monitored. Sealers and the fisheries department defend it 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.