TORONTO, Ontario (AP) -- Thousands of sealers armed with clubs, rifles and spears headed for the ice floes off eastern Canada 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 contentious harp seal hunt, the target of protests since the 1960s, begins about two weeks after the seal pups are born and 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 told The Associated Press from the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Tuesday.
"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, likely 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 November 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 (48 to 64 kilometers) from Newfoundland.
Hunters were 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 the country's seal population is "healthy and abundant," and notes 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 (P.E.I.) Fishermen's Association told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. television that harp seal pelts were at an all-time high of $57, and opponents of the hunt ought to target buyers, not the fishermen who desperately need the income from the pelts.
Aldworth said there were some 70 fishing boats in the area where she was filming, about 20 miles (32 km) south of the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, yet no government officials on the ground to check whether the seals were being properly killed.
Michel Therien, a spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Charlottetown, P.E.I., countered this. He said there were two large Coast Guard vessels in the region and one fisheries officer for every seven or eight commercial vessels.
"I presume they can't be in all the places, all the times, but we encourage the public to report any illegal activities, for sure," Therien said by telephone from Charlottetown.
He said the fishermen need to supplement their income, since many fishing families only earn about $9,800 a year from their catches of snow crabs, lobster or cod.
"They have to live on whatever they're capable of catching," Therien said. "The seal fisheries is part of their livelihood."
A report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, meanwhile, says the harvest of up to 975,000 seals will damage the marine mammal population.
"Any pretense of a scientifically based ... hunt has been abandoned and Canada's commercial seal hunt has become -- quite simply -- a cull, designed more to achieve short-term political objectives than those of a biologically sustainable hunt," the report said.
Fishermen participating in the hunt, however, blame seals and their voracious appetites for the devastation of Canada's fish stocks, in particular cod, and argue a cull is necessary.
The anti-sealing movement scored major victories in the 1970s and 1980s, convincing the United States and much of Europe to ban the import of pelts from white coat and young harp and hooded seals.
The Canadian government in 1997 banned the killing of both in their first days, only allowing the pups to be hunted after they had shed their white coats.