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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's government, heavily criticized for allowing hunters to shoot and club to death hundreds of thousands of seals each year, says it is imposing new rules to ensure the animals are killed more humanely.
Pictures of burly men smashing the skulls of young seals on ice floes off Canada's Atlantic coast are a huge black eye for Ottawa and a boon for animal rights campaigners, who say the seals often suffer a prolonged, painful death.
Hunters are usually permitted to kill around 325,000 harp seals in March and April. 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 acids.
Although hunters are obliged to ensure the seals die quickly, officials acknowledge this does not always happen.
From now on, hunters will have to follow a three-step process recommended by an independent panel of veterinarians. After clubbing or shooting the seal, a hunter must check its eyes to ensure it is dead and if not, the animal's main arteries have to be cut.
"They (the vets) think the three-step process provides more certainty around humaneness ... We do really need to move ahead with this," said Kevin Stringer of the federal department of fisheries and oceans.
Current regulations say that if the hunter discovers a seal is still alive, he has to hit it again on the head, an act that in some cases might not ensure death. Cutting the animal's arteries leaves nothing up to chance.
"One (method) ensures unconsciousness and one ensures a quick death," Stringer told Reuters.
Official estimates say there are just under 6 million harp seals off Canada's east coast, almost triple the number in the 1970s. This does not dissuade protesters -- supported by rock star Paul McCartney and former French actress Brigitte Bardot -- who say killing the animals is barbaric.
Animal rights protesters said the new rules would make little difference since there were not enough inspectors monitoring the hunt and conditions could be difficult.
"You often have very broken-up ice, people shooting at seals from distances of 50 or 60 meters (yards)," said Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society of the United States.
"There is a huge time lag between actually striking the animal with the bullet and then getting the boat into place to test for unconsciousness," she told Reuters.
Protest groups in the United States have tried in the past to persuade major restaurant chains to boycott Canadian seafood until the seal hunt is scrapped. They are also confident the European Union will ban the import of seal furs and oil.
One major hunters' group, no friend of the activists, said it backed the new three-step process.
"It's very good. As for the question of suffering, it really ensures the animal is dead and people won't be able to question that any more," said Jean-Claude Lapierre, head of the seal hunters' association on the Magdalen Islands off Quebec.
Ottawa is due to announce by the end of March how many seals can be killed this year. Last year's quota was cut to 270,000 from 335,000 in 2006 because of poor ice but both Aldworth and Lapierre said conditions this year were better.
Editing by Eric Beech