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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Hunters will be allowed to kill 275,000 young harp seals on the ice floes off eastern Canada this year, the government said on Monday, a number that animal rights activists said was totally unsustainable.
The quota is slightly more than last year's 270,000, when ice conditions were poor, but considerably below the 335,000 set in 2006.
Phil Jenkins, a spokesman for the Fisheries and Oceans Department, dismissed suggestions that the harp seal herd was in danger of shrinking.
"The seal herd is healthy and abundant right now at about 5.5 million animals. We want to see it continue to be healthy and so over the years we have brought back the total allowable catch," he said.
The animals are either shot or clubbed to death in a hunt that takes place in March and April each year. The furs are turned into clothes and there is a growing market for seal oil, which is rich in omega 3 fatty acids.
Activists complain the hunt is cruel and say they often catch sealers killing animals in an inhumane way. Ottawa says that from this year hunters will be obliged to take extra steps to ensure the seals die humanely.
Sheryl Fink of the International Fund for Animal Welfare said she was stunned at the quota, which she described as unsustainable.
"There is absolutely no way this increase in quota can possibly be justified," she said in a statement.
"It's a national embarrassment ... is killing baby seals really what Canadians want to be known for?
The government's official plan calls for the herd to be kept at 4.1 million animals or above.
"We have a conservative approach to dealing with this herd ... 275,000 is at a level where we think we are not anywhere near in danger of bringing it down to 4.1 million," said Jenkins. The hunt is set to start in the second half of March.
Activists, who since 2005 have been urging U.S. restaurant chains to boycott Canadian seafood until the seal hunt is stopped, say they are optimistic the European Union will soon impose a ban on the import of all seal products from Canada.
"The seal hunt is an economic mainstay for numerous rural communities in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the North. It's with these people in mind we make decisions based on science," said federal Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn.
Activists say the minority Conservative government is in fact subsidizing the hunt in a bid to gain votes in Eastern Canada at the next federal election, which is set for October 2009.
"We believe this quota is reckless and it's far more about conserving votes than it is about conserving seals, said Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society of the United States.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson