IN a move that infuriates animal rights advocates, Canada has decided to subsidize and expand the annual hunt for sad-eyed, fish-eating harp seals on Newfoundland's rocky shore.
Canadian fishermen and the government contend that an exploding seal population inhibits the recovery of Canada's Atlantic cod fisheries. Overfishing is now widely blamed for destroying these once-abundant cod populations.
But with few cod left - and a fishing ban leaving at least 40,000 Atlantic fishermen unemployed - the focus is now on the seals, which eat cod among many other types of fish. Fishermen have long blamed the seals for cod predation, and Newfoundland has been pressuring the government to act.
''This government will work with the sealers and fishermen to rebuild a viable and expanded commercial seal hunt next year,'' announced Brian Tobin, minister of fisheries and oceans, on June 28 in the Magdalen Islands off Newfoundland. Mr. Tobin led the recent fight to save the Atlantic turbot from being overfished by Spanish and other foreign fleets.
Under international pressure, Canada banned the killing of young ''whitecoat'' seals in 1987 after actress Brigitte Bardot took to the ice in their defense in the early 1970s, and journalists filmed them being clubbed to death. The United States banned seal products in 1972, and the European Union banned whitecoat pelts in 1983. The ban on killing whitecoats will remain in place.
About 60,000 seals were ''harvested'' this spring out of a quota of 186,000. The government plans to increase the quota next year, Mr. Tobin says, and pay seal hunters 20 cents a pound for seal meat to reduce the number of seals. The cost to taxpayers is estimated at about $1.5 million.
According to federal estimates, seals eat only about 40 pounds of Atlantic cod per seal per year. But with an estimated seal population of 4.8 million - double that of 20 years ago - the total is about 80,000 tons per year. That level, some say, could hinder recovery of the cod stocks, although no direct scientific evidence exists to support this conclusion.
Tobin's move is political and based on suspect scientific data, says Richard Moore, executive director of the London-based International Federation of Animal Welfare. ''I do not think you can divide the politics of fish in Newfoundland from the seal issue,'' he said in a phone interview. ''He is using tax dollars to bail the government out of a sticky political situation - and yet again the seals are being made a scapegoat.''
The surveys were produced by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which does not have a strong track record for accurate estimates, Mr. Moore and other environmentalists and scientists say. The department produced overly high cod quotas to allowed large ocean trawlers to deplete the cod in the first place, they add.
''These results are supposedly based on scientific results,'' says David Lavigne, a professor of zoology who specializes in seal research at the University of Guelph in Ontario. ''Since those papers have not yet been made available, it's difficult to evaluate. But even with the little bit of information available, the conclusions about the trends and abundance of seals leave a trail of red flags all through this document.''
He questions, for example, the accuracy of the computerized model used to estimate the 4.8 million seal population. Government aerial surveys done in 1990 put the population at 3.1 million. The new statistical model revised that number to 4.1 million. While such revisions are possible, the survey overall ''has no internal consistency, no logic,'' he says. ''You cannot assume that culling a predator population in a complex ecosystem is going to produce the desired result.''
Mr. Moore says his group will boycott canned Canadian salmon in British supermarkets beginning Aug. 1. Britain is the largest world market for the product, worth about $41 million.