The annual harp seal hunt began off Îles de la Madeleine in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence on Monday.

'I think the Canadian government will be doing everything they can to detract attention from the hunt.' — Camille Labchuk, Humane Society of the United States

Over the weekend, federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea set the annual harp seal quota at 280,000 animals for the entire hunt, including N.L. That's 5,000 more than last year.

Word about the precise day of the opening didn't begin to circulate until late Sunday. On Friday it was thought the hunt could be as far as two weeks off. Last year the seal began March 28, with the opening date of the season depending on when the pups are born.

Camille Labchuk, in Charlottetown to observe the hunt with the Humane Society of the United States, believes the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is trying to keep things quiet this year in light of an upcoming European vote on a ban of seal products.

"With the international scrutiny which will be upon the hunt this year, certainly the eyes of the world are watching Canada," said Labchuk.

"In advance of the European Union ban which is virtually imminent, I think the Canadian government will be doing everything they can to detract attention from the hunt."

The vote is scheduled for the European Parliament on April 2. Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials are expecting more coverage of this year's hunt in the European media in light of that vote.

Labchuk said her group will be out observing off Îles de la Madeleine Monday. Ice floes around the islands have been pushed up against the shore, which should allow hunters to work from land for now. DFO officials said conditions for the hunt are very good.

The hunt is scheduled to begin in the rest of the southern gulf region Tuesday.

About 30 per cent of the quota will be taken in the southern gulf, with the rest coming from off the coast of N.L. in an area known as The Front. That hunt will begin later in the spring.

With files from the Canadian Press