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CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island (Reuters) - Canada's annual seal hunt, which the government promised would be more humane this year, cranked up slowly on Friday because of thick ice.
The government is allowing hunters to kill up to 275,000 young harp seals on the ice floes off Eastern Canada, but only three had been reported killed on the first morning of the hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
"It's a very slow start," said Phil Jenkins, spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, noting that sealing boats were finding it difficult to get to the herds because of thick ice.
Anti-sealing groups complained they had not yet been allowed to observe the sealing and said that in any case the government's new killing procedures, intended to ensure a swift death, were not likely to be more humane.
After a hunter shoots or clubs a seal, he now must check its eyes to ensure it is dead, and if not, the animal's main arteries must be cut.
"Unfortunately, I think this year's hunt will be 'business as usual' here in Canada. I don't expect to see any improvement in the way animals are killed, or in the way this hunt is monitored," said Sheryl Fink of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
The hunt always prompts a debate between those who say it is cruel and unsustainable and those who say it is a legitimate harvesting of a small portion of the 5.5 million-strong seal herd.
"Just three days ago, we stood on the ice floes with beautiful baby seals still covered in white fur," said Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society of the United States.
"It is heartbreaking that the commercial seal hunt has begun and these pups are being brutally clubbed, shot and skinned to produce fashion items nobody needs."
The furs are made into coats and other clothes, and there is a growing market for seal oil, high in omega-3 fatty acid.
In addition to the controversy over the hunt itself, the anti-seal observers said the government delayed giving permits out until it had counted the number of sealing boats, and by then the weather had made it impossible to fly helicopters out to watch.
Aldworth charged the government was systematically shutting down observation of the hunt.
Jenkins denied this, saying the government has always sought to make sure the number of observers does not swamp the number of sealers, and that on Friday all who wanted permits were granted them once the boat count had been completed.
"It's difficult to imagine a more transparent arrangement," he said.
Reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Peter Galloway