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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Mark Small is fed up with being portrayed as a bloodthirsty killer for his part in an annual cull in which about 300,000 young seals are shot or clubbed to death on ice floes off Canada's east coast.
"It gives you a terrible feeling as a human being," said Small, a veteran hunter in Newfoundland. "We're not a cruel, savage race that came out of the forest somewhere."
As animal rights activists gear up for their protest against this year's hunt, the sealers complain no one wants to hear their side of the story. The hunt is a humane operation closely monitored by Ottawa, clubbing seals is the best way of killing them, and it supports a traditional way of life, they say.
But their media-savvy opponents are sure to get yet more pictures of men beating small harp seals with clubs on red-stained ice -- a public relations nightmare for the seal hunters and for the Canadian government.
The protesters, backed by rock star Paul McCartney and former French actress Brigitte Bardot, say killing animals for their fur is barbaric.
"We know that this hunt is cruel and unsustainable and quite frankly should have been ended many decades ago," said Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society of the United States.
The main part of the hunt takes place in April off the Newfoundland coast, a hard place to reach. Most media attention focuses on the first stage, near the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence, which this year is due to start March 28.
"They've said publicly that we are barbarians and we massacre seals," said Jean-Claude Lapierre, head of the seal hunters' association on the Magdalen Islands. "Our reputation has been sullied across the planet."
Some hunters fear the activists will succeed and kill off a centuries-old way of life.
The European Union's executive commission, pressured by the European Parliament to ban all Canadian seal products, says it will investigate the hunt. Aldworth is optimistic.
"I think the implications are very serious for the Canadian seal hunt. I think it spells the end of commercial sealing in Canada," she said. Her remarks were condemned by Canada's fisheries minister, Loyola Hearn, himself no friend of the protesters.
"Their efforts have been futile and I can understand why they're now grasping at straws and twisting the truth any way they can," he said, dismissing the animal rights groups as money-grubbers.
Critics say the fact that the bodies of seals jerk around after being clubbed shows the animals are suffering. Sealers describe the movements as muscle spasms and insist that a well-aimed blow with the blunt end of a hackapick club causes instantaneous death.
A new Canadian documentary on the hunt -- which takes the sealers' point of view -- shows a wild boar being slaughtered and then making the same movements when its throat is cut.
"There is a malaise in society. People have forgotten where food comes from," said Raoul Jomphe, the filmmaker.
Why, the sealers wonder, do people not focus on what happens in commercial abattoirs? And what about the massive game hunts in Germany?
"Our province takes no issue with the fact that they (the Germans) hunt 1.2 million deer and over 500,000 wild boars a year," said Tom Rideout, Newfoundland's fisheries minister.
"Therefore, it is hypocritical for them to take issue with a well-managed and sustainable seal harvest in Canada."
Hunters made more than C$30 million ($26 million) in 2006 from pelts alone. There is also a growing market for products such as seal oil, which is high in omega 3 fatty acids, which are said to help ward off heart disease in humans.
Although the amounts may not seem like much, Canadian sealers say the money is crucial.
According to Lapierre, some hunters in the Magdalen Islands earn as little as C$10,000 a year, half of which comes from one week of the seal hunt. For sealers who have to rely for part of the year on social assistance payments, the hunt helps maintain some dignity.
"It's a form of pride ... we go hunting to earn our bread, to find money to feed our families," he said.
Lapierre, like some other sealers, suspects animal rights activists do not want the hunt to end because it brings in too much money.
"It's the best business ever invented on the planet. It's super. You show pictures, you whip up emotions, you make people cry and then they get out their wallets," he said.
Aldworth dismissed the idea as absurd.
Last year she arranged for McCartney and his now estranged wife Heather Mills to lie on an ice floe next to a furry white-coated baby seal -- pictures which were shown around the world. Hunting for white coats was in fact banned 20 years ago.
Many Newfoundland fishing communities were devastated by the collapse of cod stocks in the 1990s and the hunt is one of the few things sustaining remote coastal towns.
Official estimates say there are now close to six million harp seals off the east coast -- almost triple the number in the 1970s. Hearn said the hunt helped keep numbers under control and protect fish stocks.