03/20/2012 04:27 EDT | Updated 05/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada Seal Hunt Quota Set, Despite Disappearing Markets

HALIFAX - Conservation groups say the federal Fisheries Department is acting "recklessly" by setting an annual harp seal quota of 400,000 animals at a time when markets are drying up and the population is suffering.

Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society International said Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield is ignoring scientific advice that the quota should be lowered this year because of poor ice conditions and declining stock.

On Tuesday, the department's website listed this year's annual harp seal total allowable catch at 400,000, which is the same as last year.

"This is a reckless quota," Aldworth said in an interview from Montreal.

"To us, it's clear DFO is not acting according to conservation principles, but rather to promote the political agendas of the politicians involved."

Aldworth said she just returned from monitoring seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where she said there was a high seal mortality due to a lack of sea ice.

A Fisheries scientist recommended late last year that the quota be set at 300,000 because of poor ice conditions and a shortage of pupping grounds.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare also condemned the decision, saying it flies in the face of proper fisheries management.

In a statement, the group said scientists have warned that the harp seal population is declining while the productivity of the species also decreases.

It also said international markets for seal products have dwindled after the European Union and Russia shut the door on them.

The department declined an interview request. Instead, it sent an email saying the quota was based on sound science and took into consideration input from the sealing industry.

"The department does not feel that this decision poses any risk to the health of the Northwest Atlantic harp seal population," Fisheries spokeswoman Melanie Carkner said.

Carkner said the harp seal population is estimated at just under eight million, nearly four times what it was in the 1970s.

The federal government has long argued that the hunt is humane, tightly regulated and economically important to coastal communities — assertions that animal welfare groups strongly contest.

But the centuries-old industry has encountered trouble in recent years.

When the harp seal hunt concluded last year, federal officials said the season was one of the worst on record, with only 38,000 seals killed — less than 10 per cent of the quota.

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