March 23, 2006

Canada Says Annual Seal Hunt to Start Saturday

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's annual seal hunt, the focus of a major protest effort by animal activists, will start on Saturday and could last longer than usual because the ice floes on which the seals gather are in poor condition, officials said on Thursday.

Canada says a total of 325,000 harp seal pups can be shot or clubbed to death this year. The first stage of the hunt, which takes place on ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Canada's East Coast, will account for just over 90,000 animals.

Activists, who say the killing is cruel and unnecessary, say they will film the proceedings. The hunt officially starts at 6 a.m. on Saturday.

Hunters usually take between five and eight days to meet their quota but officials say the ice is much more broken up than usual and the seals are very scattered.

"It will be slower ... this will drag on," said Roger Simon of the federal fisheries ministry.

The second and more important stage of the hunt, which takes place off the coast of Newfoundland, will start on April 4 and last for most of the month.

A number of high-profile figures, among them former French film star Brigitte Bardot and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, have called on Canada to scrap the hunt.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shrugged off the protests on Thursday, saying he had no intention of commenting on what Bardot and others were doing.