TORONTO (Reuters) - Authorities have boarded a ship that was protesting against the annual seal hunt and arrested its captain and first officer, the government said on Saturday.
Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn said in a statement that the vessel, the Farley Mowat, had been boarded to "help ensure the safe and orderly conduct of the seal hunt."
But the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which owns the ship, said the vessel had been outside Canada's 12-mile (19-km) territorial limit.
"This is an act of war," Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd said in a statement. "The Canadian government has just sent an armed boarding party onto a Dutch registered yacht in international waters and has seized the ship."
The annual seal hunt off Canada's Atlantic coast has long been the target of protest groups who each year broadcast graphic pictures and videos in their efforts to force Canada to stop shooting or clubbing seals to death.
The furs are made into coats and other clothes, and there is a growing market for seal oil, which is high in omega-3 fatty acid.
The government, which this year set a quota of 275,000 animals from an estimated 5.5 million, says the cull of young harp seals safeguards fishing stocks and guarantees a livelihood for people in the area.
The government said last week it had charged the captain and first officer of the Farley Mowat for getting too close to the hunters and obstructing fisheries officers.
The ministry released a picture that it said showed the Sea Shepherd closing in on a hunting ship.
"The government of Canada has taken action to protect the safety and livelihoods of Canadian sealers by boarding and seizing the Farley Mowat to arrest its Captain and Chief Officer for alleged violations of Canada's Marine Mammal Regulations," Hearn said on Saturday.
"We will continue to protect sealers while ensuring the sustainable and humane management of the hunt so it continues to provide economic opportunities for Canada's coastal communities in the future."
Last month, several hunters died when their vessel hit ice and capsized in the icy waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Reporting by Janet Guttsman; Editing by Alan Elsner