Montreal — It is a rite of spring in Canada. The hunters club the baby seals; the eco-protesters arrive warm in their down parkas, mobile in their helicopter, spray cans at the ready to dab young white seals with colored paint to make their white coats worthless.
In large measure the protesters have won. There isn't really much of a baby seal hunt anymore. During the spring hunt 60,000 adult and juvenile seals will be killed.
Before 1982, when the protest movement finally succeeded in Europe, as many as 180,000 baby seals were killed each year. But the European Community was the biggest market for the white fur of the baby seals, and it has banned the importing of the fur.
The protesters are a different class of people from the hunters. Brigitte Bardot made it over one year. Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare make regular pilgrimages to the Gulf of St. Lawrence to try to stop the killing of baby seals.
They are a dedicated, middle-class lot.
The hunters, on the other hand, are fishermen, some of the lowest-paid people in Canada. The seal hunt can account for 30 percent or more of their annual wages.
The hunters are more than a little upset when the down-jacketed environmentalists fly in on their anti-seal hunt mission. This year the sealers fought back. They smashed a helicopter while four environmentalists from New England looked on in horror. The protesters were jostled but left unharmed.
A local leader of the seal hunt has suggested, seriously, that seal protesters be banned from the hunt.
The protest against the killing of baby seals has spread in Europe. Led by people such as Ms. Bardot, Europeans have watched televisions with disgust as the white baby seals were clubbed to death and then quickly skinned.
Two British chains are refusing to buy Canadian fish until the seal hunt is stopped. One of the chains, Tesco, has 465 stores, and it is estimated that in one year a boycott of Canadian fish could cost $25 million to $30 million in Canadian dollars.
Now the International Fund for Animal Welfare is pressuring Americans not to buy Canadian fish. That market is worth $1 billion Canadian a year.
So far the Canadian government is not budging. The federal minister of fisheries, Pierre DeBane, has called the protesters ''blackmailers and liars.''
Canadian public opinion, once as strongly against the seal hunt as the Europeans, has swung sharply in favor of the fishermen from Newfoundland, Quebec , and the maritime provinces who risk their lives on the ice floes in the treacherous Gulf of St. Lawrence for so little money.
One argument is that the only people who can honestly protest against the hunt are vegetarians who don't wear leather. A slaughterhouse killing pigs and cattle is a gruesome place, and pictures of it on television would be certain to turn sensitive stomachs.
The seals are clubbed to death because it is quick and not as cruel as letting an animal struggle for days in a leg-hold trap. Federal officials regulate and police the seal hunt.
But it could still be doomed. The protesters have been effective, first in Europe and now in the United States.
So the baby seal hunt will probably end eventually.
There will be one long-term consequence. Because they have no other enemy but man, the seals will multiple (they have never been in danger of extinction) and eating fish in the the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.
This may leave the Europeans with less Canadian fish to buy. It is estimated that Canadian seals eat about 4 million tons of fish a year, the equivalent of the entire commercial catch.