The spring slaughter of harp seal pups near Canada's shores has been canceled in the face of a threatened ban on pelts in the major market in Europe.
Federal government officials confirmed the organizers' decision to cancel the annual hunts, in which thousands of seal pups were clubbed and skinned each March by Canadian and Norwegian sealers who roamed the drifting pack ice off the east coast.
The much photographed annual killing of the 20-day-old harp seals has provoked charges of brutality in North America and Europe.
After complaints including those of Brigitte Bardot, the French actress, and 3 million school-aged letter writers, the European Community's Parliament voted last year in favor of barring imports of seal pelts and related products. The community's Council of Ministers could bring that recommendation into force in a decision expected Monday.
In Bonn, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced Wednesday that West Germany will immediately halt all imports of baby seal skins, Agence France-Presse reported. If necessary, the government will take legal steps to prevent the imports, he said.
The pelts of the whitecoats, as the young harp seals are known, are highly prized because of their snowy fur.
With sanctions by European authorities imminent, the hunt for the pups is no longer considered economic, Canadian officials said. Canadian and Norwegian sealers cannot be certain of sales to major markets in West Germany, France, Italy and Britain.
However, commerical hunting of adult seals, whose mobility requires the use of rifles rather than clubs as weapons, will go on as in past years.
The disclosure earlier this month that the hunt of seal pups was being discontinued was hailed as "the announcement we have been waiting for all these years" by Patrick Moore, director of the Canadian branch of the Greenpeace conservationist group.
Members of the group had been arrested by Canadian fisheries officers in past years for trying to block hunters' paths and for dying the pups' fur green to ruin the value of the pelts. Now Greenpeace will consider also trying to stop the hunt for adult seals, Moore said.
The threat of European sanctions has met with anger and cries of hypocrisy in Canadian government circles and in Newfoundland, the rugged island province off Canada's east coast.
The European market for seal garments opened up in the 1950s as a result of improved fur-processing techniques. But sealing has been part of life since the mid-18th century for the small, isolated fishing communities dotting Newfoundland's twisting coastline.
Only during World War II, when German submarines were considered a danger, was the annual tradition interrupted.
In past years, the hunt for pups has provided about 5,000 Newfoundland fishermen with one-third of their income, money needed each spring to buy boats and nets after a winter often spent on social assistance programs.
A senior Canadian government official said European sanctions "are a totally unjustified interference in a people's way of life that will bring extreme hardship to those it affects."
The alternative of Canadian government subsidies was rejected on the grounds that it would be humiliating to the fishermen.
Officials of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's administration have warned that if Europe puts the seal-product ban in place, Canada may reconsider a recent fishieres agreement with the Common Market giving Western European trawlers access to Canadian waters. About 7,000 jobs, mainly in West Germany, could be at stake.
In last year's hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off Newfoundland's northeast coast, Canadians and Norwegians killed about 142,000 seals under the age of one year, according the Canadian government figures. Of those, about 100,000 were harp seals.
The proposed European sanctions has raised fears in Canada of further bans on skins of beaver, polar bear and walrus, which along with seals constitute an important source of income for thousands of native people in Canada's Northwest Territories.