March 2, 2006

McCartney Takes to Ice to Save Canadian Seals

By Paul Darrow

OFF CANADA'S EAST COAST (Reuters) - Former Beatle Paul McCartney lay down on an ice floe next to a baby seal on Thursday and pleaded with Canada to scrap an annual hunt that kills around 300,000 of the young animals.

McCartney and his wife Heather, both dressed in red one-piece survival suits, also patted the white-coated seal after venturing out onto the ice 16 km (10 miles) northwest of the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, off Canada's east coast.

The Canadian government said the rock star did not fully understand the nature of the two-month hunt, which it says is good for the local economy, humane, and keeps a booming population of 5.8 million animals in check.

But pictures of hunters clubbing or shooting defenseless seals over the years have turned the event into a public relations nightmare for the government and prompted several boycotts of Canadian products.

"We just believe that ... for this whole place to be a sea of red, and for these pups we're seeing today to be dead, just for their fur, is just not something that should be happening in this day and age," McCartney told reporters on the wind-swept floe.

At one point the baby seal barked loudly at Heather, who reeled back in surprise.

"Oh, he's feisty. I like that," McCartney said.

Phil Jenkins, a spokesman for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said white-coated seals had not been hunted since 1987. The seals' white coats disappear after four weeks, while those animals killed in the hunt are eight weeks or older.

Jenkins said the U.S. animals rights activists who arranged the McCartneys' trip were giving them an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the hunt.

"We see this every year. It's the celebrity of the year. This year's celebrity has a bit higher candlepower than last year's but the facts of the hunt are that it's more humane than ever, it's growing as an economically viable industry and the herd is in fantastic shape," he said.

"They (the McCartneys) do not have a complete picture of this hunt, what it means to the people who engage in it and what it means to the (local) economy," Jenkins said.

The Canadian government has yet to decide how many seals can be killed this year, in part because warm weather has meant there are far fewer ice floes where the animals normally give birth. The hunt usually starts at the end of March.

Canadian officials say they monitor the hunt closely to ensure the seals are killed humanely -- an assertion that activists dismiss as nonsense.

"I routinely witness conscious seals dragged across the ice with boathooks, wounded seals left to choke on their own blood, and seals being skinned alive. The commercial seal hunt is inherently cruel -- it is a national disgrace," said Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society of the United States.

Canada says large-scale hunting will be allowed to continue until the number of harp seals falls to 3.85 million.

(With additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa)