The premiers of two Canadian territories are calling for a ban on the use of the hakapik, a spiked club used by hunters to kill harp seals.
Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik and Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams, who said Tuesday that they will write to Canada's federal government to ask for the ban, are both supporters of the contentious seal hunts held annually off Canada's eastern coast.
But Okalik, who just returned from a European trip designed to counter negative publicity surrounding the hunt and lobby against a ban on all seal products being considered by the European Union, said getting rid of the club would make a huge difference in how the hunt is perceived.
Hunters are currently permitted to use rifles and hakapiks to kill the animals.
The hakapik, first developed by the Norwegians, has been used for years to bludgeon seals to death and drag their bodies over the ice.
Off the north coast of Newfoundland, where 70 percent of the seals are killed each season, the vast majority of hunters use rifles.
But Rebecca Aldworth, spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States, said the use of the rifle is just as inhumane and cruel as clubbing with a hakapik.
"Some of the worst examples of cruelty that we filmed this year were sealers shooting at seals, wounding them and the seals suffering in agony, crying out, bleeding and writhing in pain on the ice," said Aldworth, who has just returned from documenting this year's hunt.
This is the second time Williams has called for a ban of the hakapik.
Guns more dangerous for some
In 2006, Federal Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn responded by saying he would look into a ban, but he stressed that there was no obvious alternative for hunters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, who often work very close to each other, making hunting with guns more dangerous.
The seal hunt is the largest marine mammal hunt in the world with this year's total allowable catch set at 275,000 seals. The hunt generally starts in March and ends when the total allowable catch is reached.
Animal rights groups say the seal hunt is cruel, difficult to monitor and ravages the seal population.
Sealers and Canada's 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.
This year, hunters are taking an extra step to make sure the seals are dead before skinning them. Hunters will be required to sever the arteries under a seal's flippers, a recommendation made in a European Union report released in December.
Fishermen sell seal pelts mostly to the fashion industry in Norway, Russia and China, as well as blubber for oil, earning about $78 for each seal. The 2006 hunt brought in about $25 million.
The United States has banned Canadian seal products since 1972. The Netherlands and Belgium also ban seal products.
The fisheries department estimated the total harp seal population to be 5.9 million in 2004, the last time it conducted a survey. The government says there were about 1.8 million seals in the 1970s, and the population rebounded after Canada started managing the hunts.