Seal hunt begins on thin ice

Sealers and protesters head out in boats for this weekend's opening of the annual seal harvest in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Canada's annual East Coast seal hunt began at dawn Saturday amid warnings from animal rights groups that it'll cost Canada both money and respect.

Some opponents say global boycotts of Canadian seafood have had an impact and that this year's hunt could be the last.

Most of the large ice floes in the region have melted while others are quite thin because of the mild winter. The lack of solid ice means the hunters will, for the most part, have to stay in their boats and shoot the seals, according to media reports.

By mid-morning on Saturday, the temperature was already 15 C. Hunt protesters say many seal pups could die because they're still too young to survive in the water.

Celebrities have drawn a lot more attention than usual to the annual seal hunt this year. Earlier in the week, Brigitte Bardot, once a movie star who now devotes much of her time to animal welfare, returned to Canada for the first time in almost three decades to reiterate the plea she made in the 1970s to stop killing seals.

Former Beatle Paul McCartney and his wife, Heather Mills McCartney, were on the ice floes off the Atlantic Ocean earlier this month to see young seals and call for an end to the hunt.

On Friday, the Humane Society of the United States posted a statement from McCartney on its website to step up the pressure on Canada.

"Heather and I chose to come out to the ice floes before the hunt because it would break our hearts to have to see the cruelty of the hunt, but we are absolutely committed to making sure that this is the last slaughter of baby seals in Canada anyone will ever have to witness."

Sealers from Atlantic Canada and Quebec will be allowed to take 91,000 harp seals for this hunt. A second and much larger hunt is expected to begin April 4 off the northern coast of Newfoundland, where sealers can take 234,000 seals.

The federal government says the country's seal population is thriving at nearly six million, nearly triple the population of the 1970s.

Canada banned the killing of immature whitecoat seals in 1987. Hunters are not allowed to kill the pups before they molt their downy, white fur, usually when they're about three weeks old.

Renewed call for boycott

Still, anti-sealers are again calling for a boycott of Canadian seafood. They say their boycott last year hit Canada's economy hard.

But in Washington, a coalition of restaurants and food companies says its research debunks that claim.

The U.S-based Center for Consumer Freedom says it has a survey showing that only 21 per cent of the restaurants and seafood companies that the Humane Society of the United States claims are boycotting Canadian seafood are doing that.

"Thirteen per cent of the restaurants on their list are presently serving Canadian seafood as we speak," spokesman David Martosko told CBC Radio.

The consumer group also found more than 45 per cent of the restaurants on the society's list have never served Canadian products.