A trade agreement to sell Canadian seal meat in China announced more than three years ago has largely been thwarted by animal rights activists, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said.

Shea announced the deal in January 2011 in Beijing, saying that gaining access to the world's most populous country would breathe new life into an industry crippled that year by a new European ban on seal products.

At the time, representatives of the Canadian sealing industry said a cache of seal meat had already been packaged and was ready for shipment to China.

But the Chinese government later said it had called for a review of the deal, which has remained stalled ever since.

Shea is now blaming the animal rights movement for pressuring the Chinese government to back away from the deal over concerns the Canadian seal hunt is inhumane.

"Part of the thing that's holding it up is that animal rights groups put a lot of pressure on there as well, on the Chinese," she said in an interview Sunday.

"We have to keep telling the world that this is a sustainable hunt. It's a humane hunt."

Organized groups opposed to the sealing industry have succeeded in spreading misinformation about the slaughter of seal pups, a practice that was banned in the 1980s, Shea said.

"People are not running around out there with hakapiks killing seals willy-nilly," she said, referring to the spiked clubs used mainly by seal hunters from Quebec's Iles-de-la-Madeleine in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

"This is well-regulated. More than 90 per cent of the seals are actually killed by high-powered rifles."

The annual East Coast hunt started Monday amid heavy ice conditions, mainly off the northwest coast of Newfoundland.

The industry represents a small portion of the fishing industry in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. But the annual hunt looms large on the political landscape in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the vast majority of the country's registered seal hunters live.