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Animal rights activists, Sir Paul McCartney (right) and wife Heather Mills McCartney get up close to a seal pup during a venture onto the ice floes of the Gulf of St-Lawrence before the start of the seal hunting  season in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Photo: AFP

March 3, 2006

Former Beatle Paul McCartney has urged Canada to scrap its annual seal hunt, but Ottawa dismissed his appeal, saying he did not fully understand the issue.

Canada says the two-month hunt, in which around 300,000 harp seals off the east coast are killed for their fur and meat, is good for the local economy, humane and keeps a booming population of 5.8 million animals in check.

But pictures of hunters clubbing or shooting defenceless seals over the years have turned the event into a public relations nightmare for Ottawa and prompted several boycotts of Canadian products.

McCartney - well known as an animal rights activist - and his wife Heather were to fly out to an ice floe to pose with baby white-coated seals, while urging Ottawa to scrap the "this heartbreaking hunt".

"We have complete faith that Prime Minister (Stephen) Harper will take swift and decisive action to end the slaughter of these defenceless seal pups for good," the high-profile couple said in a statement.

The Canadian government has yet to decide how many seals can be killed this year, in part because warm weather has meant there are far fewer ice floes where the animals normally give birth. The hunt usually starts at the end of March.

Phil Jenkins, a spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the US animals rights activists arranging the McCartneys' trip were giving them an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the hunt.

"We see this every year. It's the celebrity of the year. This year's celebrity has a bit higher candlepower than last year's but the facts of the hunt are that it's more humane than ever, it's growing as an economically viable industry and the herd is in fantastic shape," he said.

Jenkins said the white-coated seals McCartney planned to pose with had not been hunted since 1987.

The seals' white coats disappear after four weeks, while those animals killed in the hunt are eight weeks or older.

"They (the McCartneys) do not have a complete picture of this hunt, what it means to the people who engage in it and what it means to the (local) economy," Jenkins said.

Canadian officials say they monitor the hunt closely to ensure the seals are killed humanely - an assertion activists dismiss as nonsense.

"I routinely witness conscious seals dragged across the ice with boathooks, wounded seals left to choke on their own blood, and seals being skinned alive. The commercial seal hunt is inherently cruel - it is a national disgrace," said Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society of the United States.

Canada says large-scale hunting will be allowed to continue until the number of harp seals falls to 3.85 million.

Photo by Paul Darrow

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