TORONTO (Reuters) - Three seal hunters died on Saturday after a fishing vessel capsized in the icy waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, marking the first accident of Canada's 2008 seal hunt season.
The vessel from the Iles de la Madeleine in Quebec was carrying a crew of six men. Two were rescued by another fishing boat right after the vessel flipped. Divers were still searching for a fourth man.
The 39-foot vessel reported steering problems late on Friday and was being towed by a Canadian Coast Guard light icebreaker when it rolled over.
Canada's annual seal hunt had a slow start on Friday mainly because of difficult conditions in the region of St. Lawrence's Gulf. Boats have been hampered by thick ice.
The vessel that capsized was one of about 16 carrying 100 hunters that headed out from the Iles de la Madeleine, steaming toward a large herd of seals in the Cabot Strait between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, according to the local media.
Three sealing vessels were reported to be struggling in heavy ice conditions late on Friday night off Cape Breton.
In this season, the Canadian government is allowing hunters to kill up to 275,000 young harp seals on the ice floes off Eastern Canada. The government promised a more humane season this year.
The hunting season always prompts a hard debate between anti-sealing groups, who say it is cruel and unsustainable, and those who believe that hunting is a legitimate harvesting of a small portion of the 5.5 million-strong seal herd in the region.
Reporting by Renato Andrade; Editing by Vicki Allen