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One of the most powerful visuals wielded by the anti-sealing campaign is a big pair of eyes staring up as a club comes crashing down.

Sealing supporters counter that the pictures tug unfairly on the heartstrings and argue that crushing the skull is a quick and humane way to kill. And they note that many sealers working on the ice floes shoot their prey with hunting rifles.

Some pragmatists have called for clubbing to be banned outright, if only for public relations reasons. But shooting a high-powered rifle on the rocky terrain of Hay Island, a small spot off Cape Breton, could cause dangerous ricochets. Clubbing remains the preferred method.

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That, however, could change, with plans to test small-calibre weapons firing slower rounds at close range during this year's grey seal hunt on the island. A team lead by University of Prince Edward Island wildlife pathologist Pierre-Yves Daoust will be monitoring the experiment, which could begin any day.

"It could be faster than the club, where the sealer may give up to three or four blows in quick succession," Dr. Daoust said. "If there is an alternative tool that allows the sealer to kill the seal instantly 99 per cent of the time that would be better."

He stands behind clubbing as a humane method and said his only aim is to see if there is a better way to kill seals. But the possibility of such a change was quickly dismissed by sealing critics as an attempt to burnish the hunt's image.

"It's nothing more than a public relations attempt by the Canadian government to sanitize the slaughter," said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of Humane Society International/Canada, who believes the research money would be better spent helping sealers secure an alternative livelihood.

"It's a hollow gesture to make the appearance of the seal hunt more acceptable."

Hay Island was opened to sealers last week and they could choose to move in at any time.

When the sealers begin work, Dr. Daoust and two veterinarians will shadow a few of them, who will be wielding firearms. The idea is that smaller low-velocity rounds will fragment when they strike a seal's skull, causing a quick kill and leaving little risk of ricochet. The monitors will send their results to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which regulates the hunt, for consideration.

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But Sheryl Fink, director of the seal program with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said that the noise of firearms could further stress animals that are already upset.

"You're shoving them around … killing them in front of each other, and in front of mothers that are still nursing their pups, in an attempt to kill as many animals as possible within a short time span," she said.

"Obviously seeing men running around with bats clubbing animals a few weeks old does not look good. But using firearms could be less humane."

Hay Island is part of the provincially protected Scaterie Island Wilderness Area. In 2009, Nova Scotia amended the law to allow the environment minister to approve a commercial hunt in the area.

The Hay Island quota was set this year at 1,900. That is down from 2,200 last year, when a lack of buyers stopped the hunt from happening.

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