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A hunter drags a harp seal along an ice flow in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the April, 2005 hunt. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)
A hunter drags a harp seal along an ice flow in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the April, 2005 hunt. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Warm weather prompts early start to St. Lawrence seal hunt Add to ...

The harp-seal hunt around the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is opening four days early but there won’t be much activity by either sealers or the animal-rights activists who have made it an annual tradition to document the kill.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced late Tuesday that, as a result of the warm weather and its effect on ice and seals, the commercial sealers could take to their boats this Thursday instead of next Monday as originally planned.

Normally that would be the signal for groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare to head to the seal nurseries with journalists and photographers in tow.

But “we are not going to be documenting commercial hunting in the Gulf this year because there really isn’t going to be any,” IFAW spokeswoman Michelle Cliffe said Wednesday.

The Fisheries department has told her group there will a maximum of five boats of sealers around the Magdalen Islands, and just two of them will be engaged in commercial hunting, she said.

“The Gulf seal hunt is over,” Ms. Cliffe said. “But it’s unfortunately not the victory that we would have wanted.” That’s because the IFAW expects many of the seal pups will die as a result of the poor quality of sea ice which serves as their home for the first weeks of life.

“To be able say that the Gulf hunt is over is something that we would have wanted to be cheering about really loudly,” Ms. Cliffe said. “But, unfortunately, it’s climate change that’s killed the seal hunt in the Gulf which means that the seals are dying because there’s no ice.”

The hunt in the Gulf accounts for about 28 per cent of the total quota of 400,000 seals that DFO said could be harvested year. Another two-thirds is allotted to the northeast coast of Newfoundland.

But even those sealers are expected to be fewer in number this year because the market for the pelts has gone dry. “We don’t know yet,” a spokesman for the Newfoundland government said Wednesday when asked if the hunt will go ahead in that province.

“We are optimistic that a hunt will occur,” he said. “However, we have to wait and see in the next couple of days where we go with this.”

The Humane Society International is asking the federal government to call of the seal hunt entirely. One of the organization’s teams recently returned from the Gulf where it observed the worst sea ice conditions on record, according to spokeswoman Rebecca Aldworth.

“Instead of solid pack ice, we saw open water and fragile broken floes,” she said. “What sea ice there was has melted very quickly and today, virtually no sea-ice remains in the Gulf. It is likely there has been massive seal pup mortality as a result of these conditions, yet unbelievably, the Canadian government is authorizing sealers to kill the few surviving seal pups.”

An IFAW representative is on her way to the East Coast but not to observe the hunt. Instead, Ms. Cliffe said, she will be checking on the seal herd and the condition of the pups.

“Last year [DFO]estimated that 80 per cent of the pups died because of lack of ice,” she said. “Last year and 2010 were the two worst ice years, 2010 being the lowest ice year on record. And it remains to be seen what this year is going to shape up to be.”

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