Conservationists outraged as Canada expands annual seal kill

OTTAWA - Canada plans to kill almost a million seals over the next three years, dismissing protests from conservationists who say this will have a devastating effect on the seal population.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Robert Thibault said hunters would be allowed to kill up to 350,000 seals in each year, up to a maximum of 975,000 seals over three years.

Last year hunters slaughtered a record 307,000 juvenile seals, almost all of them harp seals.

The annual seal slaughter begins off Canadas east coast next month.

Thibault said the killing was being expanded because the harp seal population had hit a record 5.2 million animals, up from 1.8 million in 1970. If all 975,000 seals were killed, the population in 2006 would be 4.7 million, he said.

"Seals are in abundance ... seal management is founded on sound conservation principles to ensure harvest opportunities now and in the future," he told a news conference yesterday.

Gory pictures of helpless young seals being beaten to death on ice floes have turned the annual ritual into a public relations nightmare for the federal government, which is also under pressure from the sealing industry.

Canada says killing seals protects depleted fish stocks and provides jobs in economically depressed Newfoundland. The provinces prosperous cod fishery collapsed a decade ago and some fishermen say seals are partly to blame.

The seal slaughter, which usually begins in mid March in the Gulf of St Lawrence and continues for another two months, is by far the largest mass killing of marine mammals in the world.

Thibault dismissed complaints from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) that killing more seals would devastate the seal population.

"There are no signs to that effect," he said, prompting IFAW campaigners to announce they would be launching a new overseas effort to focus attention on the cull.

"We are outraged," IFAW seals campaigner Rebecca Aldworth told Reuters. "He (Thibault) has turned his back on the international condemnation this slaughter has brought upon this country.

"Certainly this is not a decision based on any existing science...Were not going to stand by and watch the harp seal population wiped out for political reasons," she said, accusing the government of trying to deflect attention from Ottawas alleged mismanagement of fish stocks.

Last month the IFAW said the ice cover off the Atlantic coast, where seals give birth, was rapidly thinning and cited evidence that mortality rates were rising.

"The objective of the plan is extermination," said Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Watson, a Canadian who has campaigned against the seal slaughter since the 1970s, said the annual quotas were the largest in 150 years.

"The Canadian government believes that by wiping out the seals, that cod fish populations will be restored. Unfortunately there is no scientific justification for this position and the government is undertaking this program to appease disgruntled Newfoundland fishermen.

"The seals will be clubbed, shot or drowned in nets. It is estimated that for every seal landed, another is lost, not recovered and not included in the quota."

Sealers welcomed Thibaults decision, saying it would help bring stability to the industry.

"I think weve got something now we can really work with... this announcement is breathing some new life into where were going with the sealing industry," Canadian Sealers Association executive director Tina Fagan told reporters.

One bright spot for environmentalists was that Thibault rejected a request from sealers to scrap a 15-year-old ban on hunting some very young seals.

The market for pelts of seal pups collapsed several years ago due to European opposition to the slaughter, but some harp seal penises are sold for use in Asian aphrodisiacs.