The annual East Coast seal hunt is underway in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence around Quebec's Iles de la Madeleine, despite protests by animal rights activists and international efforts to ban seal products.

About 20 sealing vessels from around the islands have moved out among the ice floes, according to Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokesperson Phil Jenkins.

Some land-based hunting is underway as well, Jenkins said.

Windy conditions have pushed some of the ice against the shore, which gives land-based hunters access to the seals.

However, if the wind worsens, the herd that is close to shore may be dispersed into the gulf, Jenkins said.

The department has set a quota of 280,000 harp seals for this year's hunt -- an increase of 5,000 over last year -- out of a herd of more than 5.5 million.

About 30 per cent of the quota will be taken in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while the rest will go to the major hunt off Newfoundland's northern coast, known as the Front.

"Sealing is a significant source of income in many small, isolated coastal communities throughout Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the North," said Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea. "Our management decisions for the hunt take into account this fact as well as the advice of scientists to ensure the seal population is maintained."

Canada's seal hunt is the largest of its kind in the world.

DFO Fishery Officers will be monitoring the hunt to ensure compliance with regulations and licence conditions, and will take enforcement action "when necessary," said Shea.

Surveillance is conducted through aerial patrols, cameras, vessel monitoring systems, at-sea and dockside vessel inspections, regular inspections of processing facilities, and independent third party observers.

According to Jenkins, 16 observer permits have been issued to journalists and anti-sealing groups.

Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society International Canada says her group will once again be monitoring the hunt.

But she says in her opinion, the days of the annual hunt are numbered because international opposition to the killing of seals is growing.

The start of the hunt comes three weeks after a European Parliament committee endorsed a bill that would ban the import of seal products to the 27-member union.

The EU plan branded the hunting of seals as "inherently inhumane,"

In order to become law, the bill has to be approved by the entire EU assembly and EU governments.

Canada and Greenland have warned the EU that they could challenge such a ban before the World Trade Organization.

Several EU countries, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, already have their own bans on all seal products. The United States has banned Canadian seal products since 1972.

With files from The Canadian Press