The Northern Seals
Harp Seals are found in the polar
seas of the North, off
Distribution and Numbers
The actual number of harp seals killed by the hunt each year is believed to be much higher than the official figures due to seals "struck and lost", as well as those not reported and those illegally killed. A recent report indicated that an extra 38-89 percent should be added to the official figures in order to obtain the true extent of the kill, and it has recently been shown that unrecorded losses resulted in the actual number of seals killed in the Canadian hunt exceeding the quotas by up to 100,000 seals each year from 1996-1998.
Taking into account this unrecorded killing as well as the
killing of harp seals in the unregulated open-water hunt in Greenland,
along with mortality caused by fisheries bycatch, it has been estimated that a total of around 465,000
harp seals in the northwest Atlantic population were killed each
year from 1997-1999. These figures exceed the current replacement
yields of the population and there is therefore concern that the
population is declining as a result. The level of the current
hunt is, on average, at the same level as it was in the 1950s
- 1970s, when the northwest
The killing of "whitecoats"
(pups younger than 2-3 weeks) for their fur was a major part of
the Canadian and East and West Ice hunts. In 1983 however the
Canadian sealers are currently attempting to find and create
new markets for harp seal products, both in
Animal welfare violations during the hunt have been documented by conservation groups, video evidence showing seals being skinned, cut open and dragged with hooks while still alive, being clubbed with wooden sticks or boat hooks, and being left to suffer injured for long periods before being killed. Video footage has also shown a Canadian Coast Guard ice-breaker squashing seals in its path in its efforts to give the sealers better access to the ice floes. Such video evidence has resulted in successful prosecutions of sealers under the Canadian Criminal Code. Sealing interests are however calling for photographers, whose presence is already severely restricted and who have reportedly been attacked by sealers, to be banned from recording the hunt altogether.
A report produced during Norwegian sealing at the East Ice in 1999 criticised various aspects of the hunt, including the details of the regulation forbidding the killing of suckling pups. This regulation specifies a cut-off date after which all pups are deemed to have finished suckling, whereas many new born seals were actually observed suckling after the cut-off date and could therefore be legally killed under the regulation. The current method of shooting seals from a boat and then using a hakapik afterwards was also criticised as this resulted in some seals being shot and wounded, either escaping into the water or lying on the ice for several minutes before they could finally be killed by the hakapik.
The Norwegian sealing industry is not economically viable and is dependent on government subsidy, 17 million Norwegian Kroner having been set aside for the 2000 season. It was reported in early 2000 that the Norwegian sealing industry was in difficulty with fewer crew members having experience in sealing and vessels being in poor condition. Sealing and fisheries interests in the country are however attempting to reinvigorate the hunt. In February 2000 the Norwegian parliament asked the Minister of Fisheries to increase the seal quotas for harp and hooded seals significantly and to work to increase the international market for seal products. Pelts are the main product produced by the harp seal hunt, the market for seal meat being very small and localised in Tromsų.
Journalists and investigators
are prevented from observing the Russian hunt but there have been
accounts of up to 30% of whitecoats
not being properly killed and still being alive after they have
been transported by helicopter to the processing areas. Seal meat
from the hunt was previously sold as food to fur farms but this
has not occurred for the last few years as the farms are importing
cheaper dried meat from
Over-fishing, and to some extent climate change, can affect
harp seal populations by reducing available prey. There is evidence,
for example, that the East Ice and West Ice populations declined
in the 1980s due to a reduction in capelin numbers in the
The first few months of 2001 saw reports of a large increase
in sightings of various seal species, including harp seals, along
the eastern seaboard of the
It is thought that environmental
contaminants may be having adverse effects on harp seals, particularly
those feeding in the
During the breeding season the gregarious harp seals gather together in dense breeding patches containing up to 2,000 seals per km². Pups are born from late February to mid-March with a yellowish fur, these pups being called "yellowcoats". This fur turns white after the first couple of days, producing the familiar "whitecoat" pup. The pup begins to moult this white fur after about 2½ weeks for a silvery-grey coat with irregular dark spots. While the pup is moulting and has tufts of white fur left it is called a "raggedy-jacket", but once the white fur has been completely moulted, usually by 4 weeks of age, it is called a "beater". After about 14 months the juvenile's coat has larger spots and the young seal is then called a "bedlamer", this coat pattern being kept until the seal matures at four or more years of age. The adult coat has a silvery-grey background, the seal's head being black in males and lighter-coloured in females. The harp shape is usually better-defined in males, some females merely having irregular dark spots on their back.
Nursing of the harp seal pup lasts for an average of 12 days. During this time the pup attains 3-4 times its birth weight of 10-11kg. After her pup is weaned, the female mates with one or more males, usually in the water, and then starts a very intense feeding period before it is time to moult. The males however remain with the breeding patch as long as possible, in the hope of mating, before leaving to moult. Male courting rituals include calling, blowing bubbles underwater, making pawing gestures and chasing females on the ice. The pup starts to swim and feed for itself at about 4 weeks. Harp seals moult in herds from April-May, the moult lasting for several weeks during which time the seals eat nothing or very little.
Harp seals eat a wide variety of food, the most important
fish species including capelin, polar and Arctic cod, herring,
Harp Seals are found in the polar seas of the North, off Norway, in the White Sea, and in the Canadian arctic and sub arctic. A subject of controversy for many years, pups only four weeks old are often clubbed and beaten to death for their soft white fur. They are true "lovers of ice" as their generic name translates, and are a very gregarious sort as well. The sounds made by a herd of Harp Seals have been likened to a noisy barnyard that can be heard from a considerable distance. From 1950 to 1970, the entire Western Atlantic population was reduced by 50%. In 1971, a long overdue quota system was established setting the limit at 245,000 that could be exploited. Unfortunately, additional large numbers of Harp Seals are being killed in gill nets set for fish. In 1988 alone, more than 10,000 Harp Seals were killed in this manner. Not coincidentally, the number of breeding females declined from 140,000 to only 85,000 during this time. In Canada, surveys seem to indicate that seal herds in that country have been reduced by half in recent years. Hunting off of Norway and the White Sea continues unabated.