The snow and ice of eastern Canada is set to turn red with blood once again as hunters prepare to embark on an operation to club or shoot up to 320,000 young seals.
For the third year in a row, hunters will take to the floes and islands around Quebec's Īles de la Madeleine in the Gulf of St Lawrence. The hunt starts on Tuesday and then moves east to the ice floes of Newfoundland.
Activists protest in front of the Canadian Embassy in Brussels against seal hunting. In a new offensive, animal rights activists are threatening a boycott of Canada's fish and seafood exports, over an annual cull targeting more than 300,000 seals. (BELGA/Herwig Vergult)
Animal rights campaigners have begun a boycott of Canadian seafood products and this year's hunt is set to be as controversial as before. The Canadian government has hit back with an unusually strong attack on activists, accusing them of spreading "misleading rhetoric".
"[They issue] sensational images that tell a selective, biased and often false story," said the Fisheries Minister, Geoff Regan. "It is a real disgrace to have such negative light being cast on the Canadian men and women of this industry. These carefully orchestrated campaigns twist the facts of the seal hunt for the benefit of a few extremely powerful and well-funded organizations."
The controversy is inextricably linked to the visceral images of baby harp seals being clubbed to death and the ice floes turning red with their blood and brains. Seal hunters say that using a spiked club or hakapiks is a humane method but opponents say animals are often skinned alive and left to die.
"I think it comes down to being a values issue," said Kerry Branon, a spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) which is opposed to the hunt but is not involved in the boycott.
Despite the efforts of activists, seal hunting in eastern Canada has long been a way of life for some. But with a ban of seal product imports by the United States and then, in 1983, a ban of white pelts by the European Union, the number of kills fell as low as 15,000.
Yet a growth in demand for seal pelts from new markets such as eastern Europe and China led the Canadian government in 2003 to issue a quota to allow hunters to kill 975,000 seals over three years. "There is really nothing new about this year's hunt," said Roger Simon, a fisheries spokesman.
The seal hunters of the Madeleine Islands accuse the activists of hypocrisy. For most months of the year they are fishermen and they consider the spring seal hunt, which has been taking place for centuries, as nothing more than a way of life that supplies much-needed income at the end of the winter.
Speaking by telephone from his home in Cap-aux-Meules, largest of the outcrops that form the archipelago that make up the Īles de la Madeleine, Chris Clark, a fisherman and seal hunter, said: "The campaigners have not arrived yet but I'm sure they'll be here soon. There are some people who are prepared to look at the issue from both sides but some people just have their own agenda."
The government insists that the seal hunt protects fish stocks and provides jobs in economically depressed Newfoundland. Some fishermen partly blame the seals for the collapse of the cod fishery.
But those behind the boycott hold some leverage. Canada's fishing industry annually exports around $3bn (£1.6bn) of seafood to the US while the seal hunt generates just $16.5m from pelt sales. "I think that [the Canadian government is] feeling the heat," said Pat Ragan of the Humane Society of the United States. She added: "We're going to be encouraging consumers to enter into dialogue with their grocery stores and restaurants, and say: 'Please don't serve Canadian seafood' or 'I won't buy Canadian seafood until this hunt is over'."
© 2005 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd