OTTAWA -- The annual seal hunt is due to get underway Friday off the East Coast with new regulations in place, aimed at making the controversial kill more humane.

Phil Jenkins, a spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Ottawa, says the new rules require hunters to sever the arteries under a seal's flippers, thereby ensuring seals are dead before they are skinned. He says, "it's really going an extra distance to make sure that it's humane as it can be."

Nevertheless, animal rights groups say they remain opposed the hunt.
As Rebecca Aldworth, director of Canadian wildlife issues for the Humane Society of the United States puts it: "They've added bleeding to the killing process. This won't change anything."

This year's total allowable catch has been set at 275,000 seals, up from 270,000 last year. The total allowable catch was 335,000 two years ago, but poor ice conditions led to the change last year.

Seventy per cent of the seals will be killed in an area off Newfoundland's north coast known as the Front, while 30 per cent will be taken in the Gulf of St. Lawrence - the first stage of the hunt.

"People around the world are shocked to know that Canada, which is perceived as one of the most progressive nations in the world, allows this outdated, archaic slaughter to continue," Aldworth said.

The United States has banned Canadian seal products since 1972. The Netherlands and Belgium also ban seal products. The European Union is considering a ban on all seal products, having outlawed the sale of the white pelts of baby seals in 1983.

Registered hunters in Canada are now not allowed to kill seal pups that haven't molted their downy white fur, typically when 10 to 21 days old.

Animal rights groups say the seal hunt, the largest marine mammal hunt in the world, is cruel, difficult to monitor, ravages the seal population and doesn't provide a lot of money for sealers.

Sealers and the Fisheries Department defend the hunt as sustainable, humane and well-managed, and say it provides supplemental income for isolated fishing communities that have been hurt by the decline in cod stocks.

Fishermen sell seal pelts mostly for the fashion industry in Norway, Russia and China, as well as blubber for oil, earning about $78 for each seal. The 2006 take of some 335,000 seals brought in about $25 million.

The department estimated the total harp seal population to be 5.9 million in 2004, the last time it conducted a survey. The government says there were about 1.8 million seals in the 1970s, and the population rebounded after Canada started managing the hunts.