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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadians armed with rifles and clubs ventured on to ice floes off the Atlantic coast on Monday to start the annual harp seal hunt, an event that opponents say is totally unjustified.
Ottawa announced on Friday night that hunters will be allowed to kill 280,000 young harp seals out of a herd of 5.5 million, slightly more than the 275,000 limit set last year.
Protesters say the hunt is unsustainable and unnecessary, given that the price for pelts is falling and the European Union is moving closer to a ban on the import of seal products.
"I think it's outrageous that at a time when we're seeing up to 100 percent mortality in seal pups born in key whelping areas, the Canadian government thinks it's appropriate to assign one of the highest quotas we've seen in recent years," said Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society of the United States.
"As I say every year that we get high quotas like this, the last time that Canada allowed this many seals to be killed, nearly two-thirds of the harp seal population disappeared in the space of about a decade," she told Reuters.
Although most animals are shot, some are killed by blows from large spiked clubs, called hakapiks. Animal rights groups often use graphic and bloody pictures of the clubbing as part of their campaign to halt the hunt altogether.
The initial stage of the hunt takes place off the Madeleine Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and is usually the focus of intense media interest. Most seals are killed later, off the cost of Newfoundland.
The seals are hunted for their fur, meat and oil, which is rich in omega 3 fatty acids.
Two years ago the hunt was badly disrupted by a scarcity of the sea ice that the seals give birth on.
Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said Ottawa would defend the seal hunt, which she said was a significant source of income in many small, isolated coastal communities.
"Our management decisions for the hunt take into account this fact as well as the advice of scientists to ensure the seal population is maintained," she said in he statement issued late on Friday.
Sheryl Fink of the International Fund for Animal Welfare said the real reason for the hunt was local politics in Eastern Canada, where Shea is from.
"For the past two years we've seen saturated markets for seal fur, and pelt prices are now the lowest in recent memory," Fink said in a statement.
"If this is a market-based hunt, as the government claims, the quota for this year should be zero ... our government is insistent on keeping Canada stuck in the dark ages."
Russia said last week it had banned the hunting of baby harp seals, weeks after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called it a "bloody industry".
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson