The annual seal hunt off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador limped to a slow start Thursday because of low pelt prices and unusually poor ice conditions.

Normally at this time of year Twillingate, on Newfoundland's northeast coast, is bustling with activity, but this year many boats are tied to the community's wharves.  

Sea ice formation is the poorest scientists have recorded in decades, meaning sealers face a 12 to 18-hour boat trip north to find seals.

Despite this, some sealers say they will make the trip

"Most everybody would go if they had [seal pelt] buyers, but when you got no buyers only a few guys get to go … and we are a few of the privileged ones who get to go," said sealer Frank Brown, a crew member on Trudy B. Buster.

Brown says the Trudy B. Buster's owners have found a buyer for at least 1,000 pelts.

Other sealers haven't had the same success. For the first spring in 27 years, Twillingate resident Tom Bath is not going sealing. Bath said he'd miss the money he usually makes from the hunt.

"[Crew members] usually clear up somewhere around probably $5,000 for a start, for the summer, so it's a good start," said Bath.

This season's quota is slightly over 380,000 seals, an increase of  50,000 from last year,  but it's not expected to be fully taken.

Ice cover lacking

Federal Fisheries department officials say sealers are likely to see conditions they've never seen before. Garry Stenson, the head of DFO's marine mammal section, said that south of the Strait of Belle Isle, between Newfoundland and southern Labrador, there's virtually no ice for seals to have their pups on.

That means seals are going further north than usual to whelp. Some have been spotted having pups as far as Makkovik, northern Labrador.

"We have data going back to the 1950s, and we had never seen seals that far north," said Stenson. "I just suppose it just reflects the ice conditions that we've had over the last 60 years," said Stenson.

He said it's the first time scientists ever have seen seals giving birth north of Groswater Bay on Labrador's coast.

Ice conditions haven't been this poor since DFO started keeping records 40 years ago.