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Planet Ark World Environment News Biggest Seal Hunt in 50 Years Draws Protest

Date: 16-Apr-04
Country: CANADA
Author: Robert Melnbardis

"This hunt is bigger than it's ever been," said Rebecca Aldworth, who is leading the anti-hunt campaign at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

"When you see this hunt for yourself, there is very little way that you can walk away supporting it."

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans authorised an increase in the quota for northwest Atlantic harp seals and officials expect this season's hunt to reach 350,000. Last year's catch topped 300,000.

Ottawa says there are valid environmental reasons for allowing the hunt to continue.

"Our position is based on science. Right now the harp seal population off Canada's east coast is booming -- 5.2 million as opposed to less than a third of that in the 1970s," said department spokesman Steve Outhouse.

"Most Canadians are okay with the hunt in principle as long as it's being done in a way that is sustainable and as humanely as possible."

The first leg of this year's hunt took place in the last week of March on the ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Quebec's Magdalen Islands. Sealers there took an estimated 90,000 animals.

The Newfoundland hunt, centred off the northeast coast of the province, is expected to last only about two days, with sealers taking 140,000 of the marine mammals each day.

Some 350 small boats are expected to participate, according to the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, which represents hundreds workers in Newfoundland's fishing industry.

For many of the sealers, most of whom also fish for cod or crab, the seal hunt is the first seasonal income they will make this year, said Earl McCurdy, head of the union,

"It's a significant economic activity. The return for the last couple of years has been in the range of C$15 million (6.1 million pounds)," McCurdy said.

SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENTS

After rising international outrage over the hunt in the 1970s and 1980s forced the collapse of historic European markets for seal pelts, Canada passed legislation in 1987 that restricted the methods used to hunt seals.

Ottawa banned the killing of whitecoat seal pups younger than 12 days and limited sealers to the use of small boats rather than large commercial vessels.

As markets for seal skins and products slowly revived in eastern Europe and Asia, the hunt's economic benefits were seen as an important way to replace income lost when the centuries old cod fishery collapsed in the early 1990s.

But animal rights groups say the cull of defenceless seal pups two weeks to three months old amounts to nothing less than a slaughter of the innocents. The seals are clubbed or shot to death on the ice floes where the mammals give birth and prepare to mate before heading to the Arctic.

"It's a slaughter of one of the world's greatest wildlife spectacles," said IFAW's Aldworth.

"The seal nursery is absolutely pristine and beautiful just days before the hunters come. And then, just days later, that peace on the ice is shattered by the hunters who club and shoot everything in sight."

Despite criticism from animal rights groups and intense scrutiny from international media, the seal hunt still has broad support in the Canadian press.

On Saturday, Montreal's Gazette mockingly noted that "limousine liberals from Manhattan to Knightsbridge are fretting and signing petitions about the fate of the cute little seals off Canada's east coast."

The newspaper then offered a recipe for seal-flipper pie, a traditional Newfoundland dish.

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Reuters
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