MONTREAL — Right now, seals are giving birth to their pups on the ice floes off Canada's East Coast. The seal nursery that forms is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth. The sun gleams across icy landscapes and open water, the only sounds are the soft cries of the newborn seals. In this magical scene, serene mother seals lie contentedly and peacefully with their nursing pups.
It is a sight that tourists from across the globe pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of witnessing - one that brings substantial revenue to coastal communities in eastern Canada.
But just days later, the peace of the ice is shattered as seal hunters descend on the defenseless pups, and the nursery is turned into an open-air slaughterhouse.
Beginning in the last week of March, hundreds of thousands of seal pups will be clubbed and shot to death in Canada's annual commercial seal hunt. It is an industrial-scale slaughter that targets the animals for their fur, and leaves their carcasses to rot on the ice. With more than 300,000 pups allowed to be killed this year, it has become the largest slaughter of marine mammals on earth.
Though while I was growing up in a Newfoundland fishing community, like most Canadians, I never saw the seal hunt. The slaughter of harp and hooded seals is something that occurs far offshore on the ice floes - well away from the eyes of the public.
But for the past six years, I have traveled to the ice floes and observed the seal hunt at close range.
The majority of the seals killed are less than one month old; these pups, newly separated from their mothers, are defenseless and have no escape. And they are treated brutally. In 2001, an independent team of veterinarians was escorted to the ice floes by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. They studied Canada's commercial seal hunt at close range. Their report concluded that up to 42 percent of the seals they studied had probably been skinned alive while conscious - a clear violation of Canada's criminal code and marine mammal regulations that govern the hunt.
The violent images of the hunt - gunshots, clubbings, and the sounds of animals in pain - are vivid memories I can never erase. I carry them with me as I work to end this slaughter. And it is my hope that goal is finally within reach.
Sealing is an off-season activity conducted by a few thousand fishermen from Canada's East Coast. According to media reports and government data, they make, on average, only 5 percent of their total incomes from sealing - the rest comes from commercial fisheries.
When the first pup is clubbed or shot to death on the ice at the end of March, the Humane Society of the United States, with a network of powerful organizations that includes the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Born Free Foundation, will launch a global boycott of Canadian seafood.
We are asking Americans not to buy Canadian seafood products, such as snow crabs, until the commercial seal hunt is ended for good. American consumers can easily identify Canadian seafood products, which are labeled clearly in all major grocery stores.
Such a boycott - if well supported - would show the Canadian government and fishing industry that continuing the seal hunt is not worth the potential impact of this campaign.
As I and many others leave for the ice floes next week to again bear witness to this slaughter, we are asking Americans to stand with the Humane Society of the United States in our campaign to save the seals.
Together, we can put this cruel, outdated slaughter back into the history books where it belongs.
• Rebecca Aldworth is director of Canadian wildlife issues for the Humane Society of the United States.