Ottawa says the hunt helps ensure the health of what it describes as a booming seal population. But pictures of hunters clubbing defenceless animals to death have turned the event into an annual public relations nightmare for the government.

The two-month hunt, which starts this year on 29 March, takes place on ice floes off the Atlantic coast where the seals give birth.

Canada says the hunt is humane, but animal rights groups say many animals are skinned alive and die in agony.

Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan, reflecting increasing frustration with the activists, said they were issuing "misleading rhetoric and sensational images that tell a selective, biased and often false story" about the hunt.

Attacking activists

"It is a real disgrace to have such negative light being cast on the Canadian men and women of this industry … these carefully orchestrated campaigns twist the facts of the seal hunt for the benefit of a few extremely powerful and well-funded organisations," he said.

Officials say the population of harp seals is now five million, triple of what it was in the 1970s. They say large-scale hunting will be allowed to continue until the number falls to 3.85 million.

Ottawa says the hunt protects depleted fish stocks and provides jobs in the economically depressed eastern province of Newfoundland.

Anti-hunt activists, who held protests last week in 50 cities around the world, said they would press ahead with calls for a boycott of Canadian seafood.

Canada's fishing industry exports about $2.5 billion worth of fish a year to the United States.

"I think that the Canadian government are feeling the heat …they can see the really serious implication of going ahead with the hunt this year," said Pat Reagan of the Humane Society of the United States.