Canada Says Seal Population Growing Despite Hunt
OTTAWA Canada's harp seal population is growing despite a seasonal hunt off the East Coast that has killed 975,000 young animals over the past three years, officials said Tuesday.
The annual hunt, along with pictures of seals being shot and clubbed on the ice, generates large amounts of bad publicity for Canada. This year animals rights activists called for a boycott of Canadian seafood until the hunt is stopped.
Officials said the population of harp seals in the northwest Atlantic region last year was estimated to be 5.9 million, up from 5.5 million in 2000.
"The current harvest doesn't appear to be having a hugely detrimental effect on the population," said Gary Stenson of the federal Fisheries and Oceans Department.
An animal rights organization expressed caution about the figures, saying that, at first glance, they did not make sense and seemed to be very high.
Ottawa says large-scale hunting will be allowed to continue until the number of harp seals falls to 3.85 million. The seals are hunted for their pelts, which are used in clothing.
The two-month hunt, which started this year March 29, takes place on ice floes off the coast of Newfoundland, where the seals give birth. Canada says the hunt is humane, but animal rights groups insist many animals are skinned alive and die in agony.
"We are seeing a healthy population. We're not seeing any major signs of a decline ... (or) of a population in trouble at all. It seems to be quite healthy where it is, given the hunt that we have," Stenson told a news conference in St John's, Newfoundland.
In 2003, Canada set a three-year target of 975,000 harp seals for the hunt, which is the largest cull of marine mammals in the world. Officials said that just over 973,000 seals had in fact been killed.
Experts will meet later this year to set the target for 2006 and beyond, but Stenson said it was too early to predict what the number might be.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare -- which has long campaigned against the hunt -- said it was mystified by the latest data, particularly since bad ice conditions in 2003 meant fewer seals than normal were born that year.
"They have killed far more animals that they thought the population could sustain, we've had environmental problems on top of that ... (so) why is the number so high?" said the fund's science advisor David Lavigne.
"It underscores a point we've made on numerous occasions -- there is a considerable amount of uncertainty in estimates of populations," he told Reuters, saying he wanted to take a close look at the estimates before commenting further.
In 2003, Canadian officials had predicted the seal population would be 4.7 million by 2006.
Stenson told Reuters the figure of 4.7 million had been calculated in a different way and that using the same method, the population estimate for 2004 was closer to 5 million.
Ottawa says the hunt provides jobs in economically depressed Newfoundland. The province's cod fishery collapsed a decade ago and some fishermen say the seals' appetite for cod was partly to blame.