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Hunters gather pelts as the annual East Coast seal hunt starts in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on March 23, 2009. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
Hunters gather pelts as the annual East Coast seal hunt starts in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on March 23, 2009. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Animal-rights groups decry decision to match record harp-seal quota Add to ...

The market for Canadian seal pelts has gone dry but the federal government will still allow sealers to kill 400,000 of the marine mammals when the annual hunt opens next Monday.

The quota, announced in a release issued by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on Tuesday, ignores the advice of one of the government’s own scientists who urged that fewer harp seals be taken this year because of waning sea ice.

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But it is unclear just how many sealers will actually join in the hunt given that there is nowhere to sell the pelts. Russia, the last major market for seal fur, quietly made it known in December that it had introduced an import ban on seal products, including those from Canada.

The Russian ban and another imposed by the European Union have caused sealers to question whether this year will mark the end of their industry. Even last year, many stayed home.

“It’s the same as last year’s quota and that was the highest quota for harp seals in history,” said Rebecca Aldworth, the executive director of Humane Society International/Canada.

Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield is “directly ignoring the science advice from his own department,” Ms. Aldworth said, “and, in doing so, it is very clear that political agendas are trumping conservation.”

Mike Hammill, head of the department’s marine mammal section, told reporters late last year that two years of poor sea ice conditions have led to high mortality rates among the seals. He suggested that the annual allowable kill should be reduced by 100,000 animals.

But a spokeswoman for the federal Fisheries Department said Tuesday that the quotas are based on long-term conservation principles and take into consideration the department’s integrated seal-management plan, scientific advice, as well as consultation with the industry.

“The department does not feel that this decision poses any risk to the health of the Northwest Atlantic harp seal population,” Melanie Carkner said in an e-mail.

The harp seal population is currently estimated at just under eight million animals, Ms. Carkner said. “This is almost four times what it was in the 1970s.”

The seal hunt, if it goes ahead in earnest this year, is an annual battle between sealers with their hakapiks and the animal-rights groups with their cameras documenting the kill and sending the footage around the world in an effort to foment revulsion.

But despite high-profile campaigns by celebrities like Paul McCartney, and an international (though not particularly successful) ban on Canadian fish and seafood products to protest the hunt, all parties in the House of Commons have expressed support for sealers and their industry.

In a bid to resurrect Canada’s flailing sealing industry, Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to promote seal product exports when he was in China in February. But the Chinese are not buying. And there are now warehouses full of pelts from previous years.

East Coast fishermen say the seal population must be reduced because each seal consumes 1.4 tonnes of fish a year and threatens the supply available for human consumption. But animal-rights activists like Ms. Aldworth point out that some scientists dispute the impact of seals on the fishery and say the animals may even promote the supply of fish as a natural part of the ecosystem.

“The sealing industry has been very clear that there are no markets for seal products internationally,” Ms. Aldworth said. “The writing is on the wall.”

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