ST. ANTHONY, N.L. - The annual seal hunt off the north coast of Newfoundland is underway amid poor ice conditions, a weaker market and limited participation by local hunters.

With a ban on seal products firmly in place in much of Europe, the 400-year-old industry hasn't seen hard times like this since the late 1980s when Ottawa outlawed the killing of young, white-coated harp seals.

A spokeswoman for an animal welfare group says she spotted only four boats heading to the floes off St. Anthony on Monday morning.

Rebecca Aldworth, Canadian director of Humane Society International, said she could see very few harp seals on the thin and scattered ice pans as the group's helicopter swooped low to film the hunt northeast of St. Anthony -- a vast, inhospitable area known as the Front.

"Most of the people who are out there aren't going to be able to make any money at all this year," she said in an interview.

"This is an area where, according to the Canadian government, there should be hundreds of thousands of seal pups. Instead, we're seeing a few hundred."

Officials with the federal Fisheries Department could not be reached for comment.

The department issued a statement saying 28 boats were taking part in the hunt, a far cry from the hundreds of vessels that set sail when pelt prices peaked at over $100 in 2006.

Since then, prices have plunged to about $20 with the European Union imposing a ban last year on imported seal products.

Bloody images of sealing helped spur the ban, a move Canada is challenging before the World Trade Organization. That process could take up to three years to complete.

Aldworth said the sealing industry appears to be winding down, but her group won't stop its protests until the Canadian government officially bans the hunt and buys out all of the hunting licences.

"It's clear that global markets for seal products are closing rather than expanding," she said, scoffing at the federal government's recent claim that it had won access to the massive Chinese market to sell seal meat.

"They (Chinese officials) assured me that no such deal had been struck," she said, referring to her recent trip to China.

Sheryl Fink, a director with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the market for seal products is doomed.

"If hunting seals is a market-driven industry, as many people claim, then why isn't the Canadian government listening to what the market is saying and why are millions of tax dollars being poured into it?" she said in a statement.

"Most sealers are making the economically viable choice and fishing for crab instead of participating in a cruel seal hunt that is worth less and less each year."

The Newfoundland government says the industry injected about $24 million into the provincial economy in 2008.

Government officials and industry spokespeople have long insisted the industry generates much needed income for fishermen in remote communities, As well, they say the killing of seals is humane and tightly regulated.

Meanwhile, the lack of sea ice means the adult female seals don't have a place to give birth. As a result, there are few young seals to hunt -- a repeat of what happened last year.

"It's just one more thing that's spelling the end of the commercial seal hunt in Canada," Aldworth said.

The total allowable catch this year is 400,000 harp seals, but no one expects the hunters to take anywhere close to that number.

Last year, they landed about 65,000 pelts, a fraction of the catch limit, set at 330,000.

The annual hunt takes place in two main locations: the Gulf of St. Lawrence and northern Newfoundland.

The Newfoundland hunt accounts for about 80 per cent of the slaughter, and typically follows the Gulf hunt.

Earlier this month, federal officials said a lack of ice cover and rough weather convinced fishermen along the Gulf to keep their boats tied up in Nova Scotia and Quebec's north shore.

About 1,800 seals were taken. The quota was 21,000.

The harp seal population has been estimated at 6.9 million, more than triple what it was in the 1970s.