OTTAWA (AFP) – Canada's controversial annual seal hunt was expected to get underway Thursday off Hay Island, Nova Scotia after bad weather delayed its opening by one week, the fisheries department said.

"Hunters couldn't go out last week because of storms, but they're hoping to go out onto the ice tomorrow," an official told AFP.

The hunting quota for grey seals was upped from 50,000 to 60,000 this year, the official said, adding that the grey seal population has grown to more than 350,000.

A quota for the main Harp seal hunt due to begin in March has yet to be determined, the official said.

Canada's 6,000 sealers once made an average of 10 million dollars from the annual hunt, with a quarter of it from exports to Europe, according to the Canadian government.

But a lack of sea ice in one of the warmest Canadian winters on record and a European ban on seal products, according to Ottawa, ruined what was to be a banner seal hunt last year.

Most sealers stayed home, unable to find buyers for their catch or stymied by a lack of ice floes for the first time in 60 years on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, which usually hosts hordes of seals birthing pups.

Last month, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea announced a deal with China to allow imports of Canadian seal meat and oils, and said she was hopeful access to this new market would restore Canada's sealing industry.

Meanwhile, Ottawa continues to contest the EU ban on imports of seal products imposed after a public outcry over the annual commercial seal hunt, which animal rights activists denounce as cruel.