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Sea Shepherd Society called on to pay up on seal bet Add to ...

The long-running debate over whether harp seals indiscriminately rip the bellies out of codfish has resurfaced.

The latest chapter has a Newfoundland blogger and advocate for rural areas taking on Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society - an opponent of the annual seal hunt on the East Coast.

Darren Fancey of St. John's, creator of the pro-sealing website seashepherd.blogspot, is challenging Watson to make good on a pledge to pay $25,000 to anyone who could document the cod belly phenomenon.

Mr. Fancey says a photograph published in the St. John's Telegram last spring provides indisputable evidence.

"I challenge him to pay the $25,000," Mr. Fancey said.

Mr. Watson said the reward is still on the table, but added that he needs more than one photo.

"A photograph doesn't mean anything. I need video evidence of it," Mr. Watson said Monday.

He was reached aboard the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin, which is engaged in a high-profile protest against a Japanese whale hunt in waters near Antarctica.

Mr. Watson offered the reward back in the 1990s after the federal fisheries minister at the time, John Efford, stated publicly that seals were ripping the bellies out of codfish and leaving the carcasses.

It came at a time when there was intense debate about the future of the seal hunt and suggestions that seals were slowing the recovery of cod stocks.

At one point, Mr. Efford called for a massive cull of seals.

"I said 'if you can show me evidence that this is taking place, then yes, we would pay that reward,' " said Mr. Watson. "Nobody has shown us any video evidence."

Mr. Watson acknowledges that seals eat cod, but he's not convinced that they just eat the bellies and discard the rest of the fish.

"No marine biologist that I know of has ever heard of such a thing," he said. "That's what John Efford was claiming at the time."

The published photo in question was taken by Don Noble of Lewisporte, N.L.

It shows a seal biting into what appears to be a disembowelled codfish. Noble said at the time the seal had cleaned out the belly and then started nibbling away at the rest of the fish.

Mr. Fancey has repeatedly e-mailed Watson's Washington-based group, challenging it to pay the money so he can turn it over to charity.

"To me, it's the proof he was asking for," Mr, Fancey said.

Mr. Fancey said his e-mails have been ignored.

He also claims that a reference to the $25,000 payment that was on the Sea Shepherd website was removed last week.

Mr. Fancey provided screen grabs showing the site on Feb. 4 and the changes he said were made on Feb. 5.

Watson, who has been at sea for about two months, said he had no knowledge of any changes to the website.

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