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updated 4/8/2010 6:43:07 PM ET 2010-04-08T22:43:07

Canada's annual seal hunt got under way Thursday despite a dwindling market for pelts and other byproducts following a European Union import ban and slumping demand.

Nelson Kalil, manager of communications at the Fisheries and Oceans Canada department, said about 30-40 boats are expected to head to Newfoundland and Labrador's northern tip to participate in this season's seal hunt, the world's largest.

The department has increased this year's seal hunt quota by 50,000 animals to a total of 330,000 because hunting restrictions have resulted in a rising seal herd population, estimated at 6.9 million — more than triple what it was in the 1970s.

However, Frank Pinhorn, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association, said sealers will take a fraction of the annual quota because only one of the four regular purchasers is buying harp pelts this year.

"We expect 20-25 percent of the quota will be harvested so they'll probably bring in 50,000 to 60,000 out of the 330,000 quota," Pinhorn told The Associated Press.

Canadian hunters killed an average of 300,000 harp seals annually before the industry began experiencing dramatic drops in catches in recent years.

Depressed prices, a lack of fur buyers, leftover stock and animal rights groups' anti-sealing campaigns have impacted the industry. The recent recession has further softened the market for seal products.

Fewer hunters went out last year because pelt prices bottomed out at $14 compared to more than $100 a skin only a few years ago. A pelt is now valued at around $23-$25.

Slideshow: Seal hunt season The latest and probably hardest blow to the hunt has been the EU's ban on seal products. The ban — an effort to force Canada to end its annual hunt — was finalized last July and will take effect in August.

Fishermen sell seal pelts mostly to the fashion industry in Norway and Russia, as well as blubber for oil. The hunt exported around $5.5 million worth of seal products including pelts, meat and oils to the EU in 2006.

Canadian Inuit filed a lawsuit in the European General Court against the EU over its import ban, saying it threatens their livelihood. Canada has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization arguing the ban is a violation of the EU's trade obligations.

The fisheries department said China imported $1.1 million in Canadian seal fats and oil last year, along with pelts manufactured into boots and other clothing.

Canada has been looking to China to increase exports but has not announced any new deals.

Climate change is also having an impact on the hunt.

An exceptionally mild winter in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has left the waters off the coast largely free of the ice that is Harp seals main habitat and where they give birth.

The Humane Society International Canada, which is in Newfoundland to observe this year's hunt, says that a record low sea ice formation off of Canada's east coast will likely result in exceptionally high pup mortality this year.

"Harp seals are facing an ecological disaster. The ice habitat of these ice-breeding seals is literally melting out from under them," said Rebecca Aldworth, the society's executive director.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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