March 15, 2006

Canada Sets Seal Hunt, Says Activists Mislead

By Randall Palmer

OTTAWA -- Canada said on Tuesday it would allow 325,000 young seals to be killed this year and accused activists of misleading the public in suggesting that white-coat baby animals were still being slaughtered.

Images of the dewy-eyed white-coats dominate the Web sites of environmental groups opposed to the annual Canadian hunt, and two weeks ago former Beatle Paul McCartney got front-page photo coverage when he lay down next to white-coated seals.

Since 1987 the killing of those seals has been banned, said Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn, who suggested the real motive of many groups was not to protect the herd but to raise funds.

"We have people who are -- whether it be innocently, which I doubt, or deliberately -- passing messages which are saying this hunt is continuing as it did 20 years ago. That is completely and utterly false," he said on a conference call.

"However, it's a great way to attract attention, sympathy and, most of all, money."

This year's allowable seal catch, expected to start in the next two to three weeks, is up slightly from last year's 320,000 limit.

Harp seals can be legally hunted once they shed their white coats at about two weeks, though they are not usually hunted until at least a week later. A spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said that at that age they are already weaned from their mothers and qualify as juveniles.

One prominent group that campaigns against the seal hunt, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, has pictures of white-coats above headlines about how to stop the seal hunt.

Spokeswoman Sheryl Fine rejected the idea that the group was being misleading and said the real issue was that young seals were being killed -- even if they were not white-coats.

"Ninety-eight percent of the seals that are killed are between three weeks and three months of age," she said.

Hearn also dismissed the assertion made on Wednesday by the Humane Society of the United States that the kill levels posed "a threat to the very survival of the harp seal population."

The minister said harp seals now number almost six million, nearly triple the level of the 1970s.

"Canada's harp seal herd is a conservation success story. The herd is healthy and thriving," he said.

However, the U.S. Humane Society challenged the numbers.

"The DFO has a long and documented track record of overestimating marine populations and allowing species to be fished to commercial extinction," Rebecca Aldworth said for the group.

In fact, one reason that the Canadian government has cited in the past for controlling the seal population was to try to allow a recovery in the once-plentiful northern cod.

Hearn said the ballooning of the seal herd coincided with and was a factor in the collapse of the cod fishery, but he said the main reason was simply overfishing of cod.