Charges pending against seal hunt protesters

The federal government will lay charges against a conservation group for allegedly getting too close to sealers while protesting the annual hunt off Cape Breton, Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn said Thursday.

Conservation group denies allegation it endangered sealers

The federal government will lay charges against a conservation group for allegedly getting too close to sealers while protesting the annual hunt off Cape Breton, Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn said Thursday.

Hearn announced in the Commons that he would take legal action against the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and its vessel, the Farley Mowat, for allegedly venturing close to a group of fishermen as they hunted seals on ice floes.

"We will not tolerate the reckless antics of the Sea Shepherd Society," Hearn said during question period. "We will pursue charges."

A spokesman for the minister wouldn't say what charges the group could face or if he's taking any other action against the controversial group that has a history of confrontations on the ice floes.

A Fisheries Department official said people who have an observation licence must remain 10 metres from sealing operations, while those without a licence must remain a half a nautical mile away.

On Sunday, a handful of sealers claimed the Farley Mowat came too close to them on the ice north of Cape Breton, even after being warned away by the coast guard.

Paul Watson, president of the conservation society, has denied allegations that the Farley Mowat got too close to the hunters and claims his ship was rammed twice by the coast guard icebreaker Des Groseilliers on the weekend.

Watson scoffed at the suggestion of charges, saying his vessel is Dutch-registered and doesn't have to submit to Canadian regulations.

"What Hearn's trying to do is to dissuade us from going back in those waters and that's not going to work," he said from his vessel in St. Pierre-Miquelon, where it's preparing to head out again to the hunt.

"Canada has no legal authority to dictate where we can navigate within those waters."

Captain alleges icebreaker rammed protest ship

Watson said a video recording of the confrontation taken from the bow of the Farley Mowat will prove his assertion that his ship was rammed at least twice by the icebreaker.

The video shows the two vessels travelling briefly in a parallel course and then colliding twice, but it's difficult to determine which vessel, if any, initiated the collision.

Watson, a figure reviled in sealing communities on the East Coast for his strident opposition to the hunt, said he didn't endanger sealers by pursuing their vessel or chipping away at ice they were standing on.

One sealer said the Farley Mowat, a 54-metre long steel-hulled ship, came within about 30 metres of the much smaller sealing boat.

Fisheries officials countered, saying their vessel was "grazed" twice by the Farley Mowat.

The conflicting accounts come as the department prepares to resume the search for a sealer who disappeared last Saturday when his vessel capsized while under tow by another coast guard icebreaker.

The bodies of three other sealers were recovered from L'Acadien II when it overturned north of Cape Breton, while the search for the fourth man was called off about 12 hours after the incident.