Campaigners reveal sickening scenes on the ice as Canada's annual seal hunt begins

By Charlotte Cross: ITV News reporter

Sickening images of blood-soaked ice and seals lying injured and dead have been captured by campaigners monitoring Canada's annual commercial seal hunt.

The pictures, released to ITV News by the Humane Society International (HSI), show the spring slaughter in full swing.

Warning: This article contains details and images which some people may find distressing.

A live seal spotted by HSI campaigners Credit: Humane Society International

Tens of thousands of harp, hooded and grey seals are shot, clubbed and skinned for their coats every year in the hunt.

Last year's official government kill quota was 468,000 - and campaigners say the vast majority are just weeks old, as cub skin is more valuable.

seals killed since 2002
are aged less than three months old
countries have banned seal hunt products

In a bid to minimise suffering, Canada's government has ruled that only high-powered rifles or shotguns, clubs or hunting tools called hakapiks may be used to kill the marine animals.

But the HSI told ITV News that they have seen evidence that the creatures' deaths are anything but humane.

One of Canada's seal hunt ships Credit: Humane Society International

HSI Canada executive director, Rebecca Aldworth, has been out in the charity's HuntWatch helicopter since the hunt began this week.

It is her 18th year monitoring activity on the ice.

It is devastating to watch the suffering of these seal pups but we do so knowing that our evidence is shutting this industry down. The suffering of these defenseless pups is utterly heartbreaking.

Sealers are shooting and clubbing every baby seal they see and the ice is slick with blood.

One baby seal was shot in the neck and from 1,000 feet in the air we could see her still moving as the blood poured out of her.

– Rebecca Aldworth, HSI Canada

Along with the HSI, other animal rights groups including PETA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have also repeatedly called for an end to the slaughter.

The HuntWatch spotted a seal lying dead on the ice Credit: Humane Society International

A total of 32 countries have banned products from the seal hunt so far - including the US, all 28 European nations, Mexico, Russia and Taiwan - and campaigners are hoping that China, which is now the biggest market for such items, will soon sign up too.

"With more and more countries refusing to buy commercial seal products, the primary reasons the slaughter continues today are government subsidies and the false promise that China will emerge as a major market for seal fur," Ms Aldworth said.

"Humane Society International is calling on China to set the record straight and help put right an international wrong by banning commercial trade in seal products."

The remains of slaughtered seals can be seen in the back of one of the boats Credit: Humane Society International

Animal rights groups say the methods of killing the seals are "inherently inhumane", and hope that by cutting off potential markets for seal products, the killing will quickly fade out.

HSI said it wants to see a "fair transition programme" for the hundreds of commercial fishermen who take part in seal hunting.

More than two million seals have been killed in the hunts since 2002, HSI said - with Canada's hunt now considered to be the largest slaughter of marine mammals anywhere in the world.

According to Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the seal hunt is important to uphold the "significant cultural and traditional" values of its indigenous people, who have their rights to harvest marine mammals enshrined in the constitution.

Blood soaks the ice where a seal has been culled Credit: Humane Society International

It also generates income, reaching a reported high of $34.1 million (£18.8m) in 2006.

The Canadian government believes in the sustainable use of a renewable resource such as the harp seal. As with all Canadian fisheries, Fisheries and Oceans Canada supports and regulates the seal harvest and is committed to ensuring it is sustainable and conducted safely and humanely.

The Canadian seal harvest is one of the world’s most highly regulated and monitored harvests of wild animals. It is an important economic and cultural activity in communities in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the Arctic.

– Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada

Canadian law mandates that the harvesting of harp seal pups - or 'whitecoats' - and grey seals is illegal until they are at least 25 days old, which is when they are deemed to be "self-reliant, independent animals".

Hooded seal pups - 'bluebacks' - cannot be hunted until they are two to three years old.