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Canadian seal hunters could remain trapped by ice for a week: coast guard

ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland: Dozens of seal hunt vessels stuck in pack ice off Newfoundland's northeast coast could remain stranded for another week, a Canadian coast guard official said Thursday.

As many as 100 vessels are stuck in ice floes jammed together by strong northeast winds. By Thursday, crew had been evacuated from at least 10 vessels amid growing concerns of dwindling supplies of food and fuel, and of damage to the boats.

"With the current forecast, it looks like it's going to be at least into the weekend before we get any significant wind change," said Brian Penney, a superintendent with the coast guard in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"And because of the sheer size of the pack ice, we need at least two to three days of southwest wind before the icefield starts to move."

The Newfoundland part of Canada's controversial seal hunt is the third and largest stage of the hunt. The total quota for all three phases is 270,000 animals.

Unusually warm weather melted or thinned out much of the ice in the first stage of the hunt in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, drowning thousands of baby seals.

Now, too much ice is wreaking havoc with the largest stage of the hunt as sealers try to return to port with their catch. Fishermen sell seal pelts mostly for the fashion industry in Norway, Russia and China, as well as blubber for oil, earning about US$78 (€57.35) per seal.

The hunt has drawn widespread criticism, including from celebrities such as Paul McCartney and French actress Brigitte Bardot. The United States has banned Canadian seal products since 1972, and the European Union banned the white pelts of baby seals in 1983.

The icebreaker Henry Larsen has been escorting boats out of the ice, including a smaller coast guard vessel that became stuck on Wednesday.

But the heavy ice trapped another coast guard vessel Thursday. The Ann Harvey had been dispatched to rescue some stranded sealers before it, too, got stuck.

Penney said helicopters were flying food and water to vessels that were running out of supplies, and would continue doing so until the sealers are able to leave the area.

He said the most immediate concern was food, but fuel will become an issue when they are able to leave.

Penney said upward of a dozen ships were "extensively damaged," which puts them at risk of sinking when the ice begins to subside and they slip back into the water. The thick, moving ice poses the danger of sandwiching and cracking the boats.

Tony Penton, a sealer who was stuck in the ice over the weekend, said the ice conditions were the worst he has ever seen.

He said his vessel, the Krista Paul, was among 27 boats that made it out of the ice on Monday.

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