TORONTO -- Thousands of sealers armed with clubs, rifles, and spears headed for the ice floes off eastern Canada yesterday for the world's largest seal hunt, one expected to bring poor coastal communities millions of dollars but condemned by animal rights activists as barbaric.
The harp seal hunt, the target of protests since the 1960s, begins about two weeks after the seal pups are born and before their fur changes from white to gray. Animal rights activists say the pups are clubbed to death and often skinned alive, but sealers and government officials who monitor the hunt insist the pups die instantly, under strict guidelines.
''It's just horrific out there. There is blood all across the ice and seal carcasses as far as the eye can see," Rebecca Aldworth of The Humane Society of the United States said yesterday.
''We've seen seals that were moving around and breathing, that have been left in these piles, some left conscious and crawling," said Aldworth, a native Newfoundlander who has observed the seal hunt for the past six years.
Regulations require that hunters ensure their prey is dead before moving on. Aldworth said she had listened to some seals crying, probably for their mothers, which whelp on the ice floes every spring.
Aldworth is filming the hunt and posting her findings on the Web.
Many countries, including the United States, ban imports of seal products.
But the Canadian government says the hunt brings badly needed income to its coastal communities, which earned about $16.5 million last year, primarily from pelt sales to Norway, Denmark, and China.
Aboriginal and Inuit subsistence and commercial hunters begin the kill Nov. 15 in Canada's vast expanse of frozen northern waters, which reach from the Yukon Territories near Alaska through the Arctic Ocean and down into the North Atlantic off the Labrador coast.
The spring leg of the commercial hunt starts in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and moves to the Front, an arc of the Atlantic Ocean sweeping out about 30 to 40 miles from Newfoundland. Hunters are expected to kill more than 300,000 seals by May 15, when the federal, three-year plan ends, allowing sealers to harvest a total of 975,000 seals since 2003.
Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans says that the country's seal population is ''healthy and abundant," and that there are an estimated 5 million harp seals, nearly the highest level ever recorded and almost triple what it was in the 1970s.
Ed Frenette of the [Prince Edward Island] Fishermen's Association told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. television that harp seal pelts were at an all-time high of $57, and that opponents of the hunt ought to target buyers, not the fishermen who desperately need the income from the pelts.