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A hunter heads towards a harp seal during the annual East Coast seal hunt in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence around Quebec's Iles de la Madeleine on March 25, 2009.Andrew Vaughan

The annual East Coast seal hunt starts Monday against a backdrop of ongoing trade and court challenges in Europe and renewed claims from animal welfare groups that the 400-year-old industry is dead in the water.

Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Canadian wing of Humane Society International, said on Sunday that only 15 boats have signalled their intention to take part in the hunt, which typically focuses on harp seals off the northeast coast of Newfoundland.

With the market for seal products closed in the United States, most of Europe and Russia, the commercial hunt is a shadow of what it once was, largely surviving on subsidies from the Newfoundland and Labrador government in the past few years, Aldworth said.

"From a market perspective, the seal hunt is very much over," she said in an interview, adding her group will return to the ice floes to document the slaughter. "Markets around the world have closed ... It's an industry that's limping along on credit and subsidies."

However, the federal government has been steadfast in its support of the hunt, insisting it's a humane, sustainable and an economically viable pursuit that is important to many coastal communities.

Fisheries Minister Gail Shea admitted Sunday that those opposed to the hunt have been effective in shutting down international markets.

"They have been spreading misinformation about the Canadian seal hunt and Canadian seal products for as long as I've been in this position," Shea said in an interview from Vancouver. "It's grossly unfair. We've done a lot of work in ensuring that our Canadian seal hunt is humane."

Every seal hunter must be trained on proper killing techniques before they are allowed to take part in the hunt, she said.

"I believe there's great opportunity in the sealing industry," Shea said, adding that Ottawa continues to invest in product development.

Meanwhile, the industry continues to push ahead with a court case in the European Union aimed at overturning a ban on seal products, and the federal government is appealing a recent World Trade Organization decision to uphold the ban.

The WTO concluded in November that while the ban undermines fair trade, the restrictions can be justified on "public moral concerns" for animal welfare.

Last month, Canada's northern development minister said the WTO's decision had set a dangerous precedent for future trade relations.

Leona Aglukkaq said the trade organization was wrong to cite moral grounds in its ruling. She said the ruling should be struck down because it unfairly discriminates against Canadian seal hunters while allowing the EU to ban products from any type of business that involves the killing of animals.

Shea said even though the EU has provided an exemption for Inuit seal hunters, the broader ban is effectively killing their markets anyway.

"Trade should be governed by facts and evidence and not based on issues or morality fuelled by misinformation," She said.

Human Society International and other animal welfare groups are suggesting Ottawa should shut down the industry and cushion the economic impact by offering buyouts to about 6,000 licensed hunters.

She rejected that idea.

"I don't believe this industry is for sale," she said, adding it will be up to industry players to decide the fate of the hunt.

Sheryl Fink, wildlife campaigns director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, issued a statement saying the hunt has been on life support for 20 years.

"It will never come back to previous levels," said Fink. "Europeans don't want products from an inhumane, wasteful and unnecessary industry."