The federal government has quietly posted new regulations that will slow down the controversial seal hunt by forcing sealers to take more time ensuring the mammals are dead before skinning.

The rule changes, which include beefed up federal enforcement, come barely a month after federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said Canada was "proceeding as usual" with the 2009 hunt in the face of a proposed European Union ban on seal products.

A spokesman for Shea characterized the new regulations as modest modifications of existing practices.

"Certainly these tweaks are in keeping with what independent veterinarians have been telling us to make sure the hunt is as humane as it can possibly be at all times," said spokesman Phil Jenkins.

"I think that's consistent with what the minister was saying."

But a spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare said the rule changes don't go nearly far enough because they still allow seals to be shot in the water, where sealers cannot immediately ensure they are dead with a second blow to the skull.

Sheryl Fink, an IFAW researcher, called the new regulations "completely unacceptable from an animal welfare point of view."

Traditional spiked club banned

The premiers of both Nunavut and Newfoundland and Labrador have called on the federal government to ban the use of the traditional hakapik, or spiked club, for killing seals.

The new rules make only a passing nod in that direction.

"No person shall use a club or a hakapik to strike a seal older than one year unless the seal has been shot with a firearm," states one new regulation, posted quietly Saturday in a government publication without government fanfare.

But less than one per cent of the annual hunt involves seals older than a year, according to Jenkins.

As it is, some 90 per cent of all seals currently taken are shot. A hakapik or club is used primarily to ensure the skulls are crushed before seals are bled and skinned.

Under the new rules, an existing provision called a "blink test" — used to check whether seals are permanently unconscious before skinning — is being eliminated because it is unreliable. The only acceptable test will be feeling the seal's cranium to make sure it is broken.

And sealers will have to bleed the animal for a full minute before skinning.

Rules raise costs

The regulations acknowledge that this will result in significantly increased costs to sealers by "reducing the speed of the harvest."

But with the European Parliament and its 27 member countries poised to stop all imports of seal products as early as March, the government felt a regulatory gesture was needed.

The policy shift will "help maintain Canada's international reputation as a country that sustains a 'humane hunt,"' according to an attached analysis by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The moves are in line with "the latest veterinary advice and recommendations, requests of the European Union and concerns from animal welfare groups," the analysis said.

If the EU import ban went ahead, the Canadian government estimates, it would halve the $13 million annual value of the seal hunt to some 6,000 sealers in this country.

Normal practice

Jack Troake of Twillingate, N.L., who has been sealing since 1951, said the shooting and bleeding of seals are already the normal practice.

"We're trying to appease the protest movement [with the new regulations]," he said Saturday in an interview with the Canadian Press. "We've been doing this for years."

However, Troake is concerned that new rules for ensuring seal mortality could puts lives in danger if sealers are forced to leave their larger vessels to go on to the unstable sea ice before hauling seals aboard for bleeding and skinning.

But Fink says there's nothing in the new rules to stop harvesters from using a gaff hook to pull wounded seals out of the water, something the IFAW says is inhumane.

To enforce the changes, the government says it is considering remote surveillance cameras mounted on helicopters and an anonymous tip line for sealers to report offenders.