ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- Fewer than 40,000 seals were landed during this year's East Coast commercial hunt, one of the lowest on record - but proponents insist there's a future for a product that animal welfare groups want banned.

The federal Fisheries department confirmed 38,479 harp seals were hunted along with 1,143 grey seals, mainly off the coasts of Newfoundland and Quebec.

That compares to 55,000 harp seals last spring and 91,000 in 2013. It's also less than 10 per cent of this year's federal quota of 400,000.

A provincial loan of up to $1 million helped Newfoundland's only buyer this year, PhocaLux International Inc., purchase about 35,000 seals.

General Manager Shannon Lewis said demand for seal fur products and meat is up across Canada. But bans driven by animal welfare campaigns in Europe, the United States, Mexico and other countries have hampered the industry, he said in an interview.

"We know that it's going to take some time to develop some of the markets and open up some of the trade barriers that are in place. But I think with social media, people are more aware of what the seal has to offer that we're going to start to see an upswing in the market."

PhocaLux was a new player in the industry this year and has plans to expand processing capacity at its plant in Fleur de Lys on Newfoundland's northeast coast, Lewis said.

The province's other major buyer, Carino Processing, said in April it still had existing inventory and would only buy some seal meat this year.

Prices hovered around $33 for the highest quality pelts, said Eldred Woodford, president of the Canadian Sealers Association.

"The demand is there, according to some of the processors. They've had demand for seal products, it's just that they don't have market access."

The federal government has long defended the commercial hunt as humane, sustainable, well-regulated and a vital source of income for coastal and Inuit communities. It has supported efforts to expand seal product sales domestically and overseas in markets such as China.

Rebecca Aldworth of Humane Society International-Canada said the number of seals taken this year is the lowest in two decades, and among the lowest over the last 70 years. It underscores why a commercial hunt that she describes as cruel and needless should be phased out with transition support, she added.

Aldworth recorded footage this year off northeast Newfoundland in a region known as The Front.

"We were the only NGO (non-governmental organization) that was actually documenting what happened to these seals," she said from Montreal.

"The seal hunt is a unique activity in which very, very young and defenceless animals are being clubbed and shot to death with great speed in an environment that is absolutely uncontrolled -- the northwest Atlantic."

Shifting and often extreme conditions mean sealers can't consistently kill seals humanely, Aldworth said.

"This is not a slaughter that anyone in St. John's or any other part of the province would tolerate if it happened in the streets in front of them."

Aldworth also questions the need for any cull as seal populations grow.

"Seals eat lots of important predators of commercially valuable fish," she said. "If we saw a reduction in the seal population, we could easily see unintended and negative consequences for vulnerable fish stocks."