TORONTO — Canada's annual seal hunt started Monday, under pressure from a possible European Union ban on imported seal products.
The world's largest marine mammal hunt was called "inherently inhumane" earlier this month by a European Parliament committee that endorsed the bill to ban the import of seal products to the 27-member union. Animal rights groups say the hunt is cruel, difficult to monitor and ravages the seal population.
But sealers and Canada's Fisheries Department counter that the hunt is humane and sustainable, and brings extra money to isolated fishing communities.
Fishermen sell seal pelts mostly for the fashion industry in Norway, Russia and China, as well as blubber for oil. The hunt exported around $5.5 million worth of seal products such as pelts, meat, and oils to the EU in 2006.
Canadian politicians lobbied intensely to try to convince the European committee that the hunt is humane. The bill must be approved by the entire EU assembly and EU governments to become law, a move that could come as early as next month.
Though acknowledging that the shooting or bludgeoning of the animals is a bloody activity, Canadian authorities contend the animals are killed quickly and do not suffer unnecessarily.
New rules are aimed at ensuring that seals are dead before they are skinned. Hunters are also forbidden from killing seal pups that haven't molted their downy white fur.
"The picture that has been painted in people's minds is that we have small white coat baby seals that are being clubbed over the head and skinned while they are alive. It's just so not true," Gail Shea, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
"Now the population in Europe has bought into this and it has spilled over to the political arena and the politicians are trying to respond to their electorate," she said.
EU legal experts say the ban could violate world trade rules, and Canada has warned it could challenge a ban before the World Trade Organization.
Rebecca Aldworth, director of Humane Society International Canada, said the ban should prompt Canada to end the hunt altogether.
"It's clear to me that change is in the air," she said.
But the hunt has overwhelming support in Canada. Shea said her department wouldn't be able to control the seal population of about 5.6 million without the hunt.
The United States has banned Canadian seal products since 1972. The Netherlands and Belgium also ban seal products.