Harp Seal
Phoca (Pagophilus) groenlandica

This page is currently (September 2011) being updated and references added


Distribution and Numbers
The ice-breeding harp seal, found in waters of the Arctic and far north Atlantic Ocean, obtains its name from the horseshoe or harp-shaped pattern on the back and sides of the adults of the species. The species has three distinct populations. The northwest Atlantic population breeds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (the "Gulf") and off the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland (the "Front"), the east Greenland population breeds near Jan Mayen Island (the "West Ice"), and the Barents Sea population breeds in the White Sea (the "East Ice"). Precise figures for harp seal abundance are unavailable. However recent estimates are: 4.0 - 6.4 million in the northwest Atlantic population, 300,000 in the east Greenland population, and 1.2 million in the Barents Sea / White Sea population. Wandering individuals have been observed as far south as Virginia and France. The species is referred to by some scientists as Pagophilus groenlandicus.
Phoca groenlandica - Image 1

International Fund for
Animal Welfare
Canadian Hunt
All three harp seal populations are commercially hunted, usually on their breeding grounds, and the current hunt in Canada has been described as the "largest slaughter of marine mammals in the world". The size of the harp seal hunt in Canada increased significantly in the mid-1990s, aided by government subsidies, and the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) has been set at 275,000 since 1997. The reported total of harp seals killed during the 1999 season was 244,552. The hunt in 2000 resulted in the smallest kill of harp seals in five years, despite the federal government twice extending the seal hunting season. A total of 91,602 harp seals were officially reported as being killed during the 2000 season, a figure that sealers blamed on various factors such as the low price of pelts, high fuel and ammunition prices, and increased insurance rates. Sealers also found difficulties in reaching a less concentrated distribution of seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence section of the hunt due to the early breaking up and melting of the ice there.
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 Atlantic harp seal population declined by as much as 50%. Population models considered by a meeting of the Canadian National Marine Mammal Review Committee in April 2000 calculated that the harp seal population would decline if hunting were to continue at the current level and age structure.
Phoca groenlandica - Image 2

International Fund for
Animal Welfare
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 European Economic Community, in response to public opinion, instituted a ban on the import of whitecoat products, a move that resulted in a drop in the number of seals killed. The hunting of whitecoats in Canada for commercial purposes has now been banned since 1987, but is still permitted for personal use.

It is thought that the illegal killing of whitecoats may have taken place in 1997 when a conservation group reported that up to 20,000 whitecoats had been killed and illegally sold.
Canadian sealers are currently attempting to find and create new markets for harp seal products, both in Canada and internationally, and to persuade the United States and the European Union to lift trade barriers preventing the import of seal products. Harp seal oil is being actively marketed, while male harp seal genitals are being exported to the Asian aphrodisiac market. There is also a steady production of seal leather, fur and meat products. An opinion poll released in 1997 showed that 50% of Canadians wanted the east coast hunt to end. In addition, an economic analysis of the 1996 harp and hooded seal hunt concluded that if subsidies were eliminated, and the trade in seal penises for aphrodisiacs were discounted, then the net value of the hunt to Canada as a whole was zero. The 2000 sealing season was the first since 1995 without a direct federal government subsidy for seal meat and the industry admitted before the hunt began that there were still over 100,000 harp seal pelts stockpiled and unsold from 1999. Seal meat that could not be sold was reportedly thrown overboard during the 1999 hunt. In March 2001 a report analysing official government trade statistics revealed that Canada had exported only 51% per cent of the almost 2 million pelts taken from harp and hooded seals killed between 1982 and 1999, further questioning the viability of the sealing industry given the low level of international demand for seal pelts.
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 been attacked by sealers, to be banned from recording the hunt altogether.
Norwegian Hunt
Harp seals are subjected to intensive commercial hunting during the spring at both their West and East Ice breeding grounds, hunt quotas for these populations being jointly managed by Norway and Russia. For the 2001 sealing season Norwegian vessels were allocated hunt quotas of 15,000 adult harp seals on the West Ice (2 non-suckling pups deemed equal to 1 adult) and 5,000 adult harp seals on the East Ice (2.5 non-suckling pups deemed equal to 1 adult). An average of 14,778 harp seals were killed by Norway between 1991 and 1996. The totals dropped however to 7,163 and 2,716 in 1997 and 1998 respectively. The 1999 season saw a further reduction in the number of seals killed to 781 pups and 1,172 older seals, only two vessels taking part in the West Ice hunt and, for the first time in many years, no Norwegian vessels sealing on the East Ice. However the 2000 season saw a massive increase, a total of 18,678 seals being killed, of which 12,321 were on the West Ice (6,328 non-suckling pups and 5,993 older seals), and 6,357 on the East Ice (2,253 non-suckling pups and 4,104 older seals).
A report produced on 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 Tromso.
Russian Hunt
The main product of the government-subsidised Russian harp seal pup hunt, which takes place in the spring at the East Ice, is white fur pelts which are dyed black for sale as hats for which there is little demand. Although the European Union currently maintains a ban on the importation of harp seal whitecoat products, an environmental group has found evidence that the ban is not being enforced and that whitecoat products are entering the European Union from Russia through Norway. It has been reported that many people participating in the Russian hunt work in conditions of virtual slavery and are forced by their employer to take part in the hunt or lose their jobs, no alternative jobs being available. There are two sealing concessions for the Russian hunt, sealers using helicopters to reach the seals on the ice and killing the pups by clubbing them. The number of pups killed by Russian sealers in 1999 was 34,850, all whitecoats. Included in this figure were 5,000 whitecoats held in enclosures for 2-3 weeks and killed once moulted at a whitecoat "farm" that has been operating in Koida, Archangel, since 1972. The quotas set for 2000 and 2001 were 63,500 and 76,000 pups respectively.
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 Germany, many seal carcasses being left to rot near processing plants as a result. Environmental groups have been trying to promote ecotourism and small business as alternatives to the seal hunt. In January 2000 the Russian president Vladimir Putin vetoed an animal protection bill that had passed through the Russian parliament by 273 votes to 1 and which would, among other aspects, have effectively outlawed seal hunting in Russia.
Other Hunting
Greenland natives kill nearly 100,000 harp seals each summer, mostly off west Greenland. A Greenland company was reported in February 1999 as planning to produce seal sausages for export to China, starting on a small scale with sausages from 10,000 seals a year. There is also some native subsistence hunting of harp seals and each year a number are killed by Inuit in Canada. Local hunters in Iceland also shoot an unknown number of harp seals.
Other Threats
Some fishing interests blame harp seals for diminishing fish stocks, particularly in the northwest Atlantic. The species was accused by some as being partly to blame for the catastrophic collapse in Atlantic cod stocks off eastern Canada in 1992. Subsequent analysis has indicated however that the most likely reason for the collapse was the intensive over-fishing of cod along with fisheries discards of younger cod. There are currently an increasing number of calls from Canadian fishing interests and provincial government ministers, particularly in Newfoundland, for a massive cull of several million harp seals. One of the major reasons put forward for this, although lacking supporting evidence, is that harp seal predation is impeding recovery of the cod stocks. Research has shown that over 120 species of fish and invertebrates have been found in harp seal stomachs and that it is possible, due to the complexity of the marine food web, that a reduction in harp seal numbers may actually have a detrimental impact on commercially fished species. Fisheries organisations in Canada have also called for the setting up of "seal exclusion zones" in which any seals would be shot.

Phoca groenlandica - Image 3

Phoca groenlandica - Image 4

Photos: International Fund for
Animal Welfare


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 Barents Sea. This resulted in the influx of foraging harp seals into Norwegian coastal waters, particularly noticeable in 1987 and 1988. Approximately 80,000 of these seals died in Norwegian gillnet fisheries during 1987-88, the usual bycatch rate being 500-2,000. Recent large-scale failures in the Canadian groundfish fisheries, and resulting moratoria losses in other fisheries, have seen a reduction in harp seal entanglement mortality for these fisheries. However there is a high mortality of harp seals entangled in the nets of the lumpfish gillnet fishery in Newfoundland, an estimated 17,000 seals being killed in the fishery's nets each year since 1995. An average of 398 harp seals are also estimated to have been killed each year by entanglement in nets of the U.S. Northeast multispecies sink gillnet fishery between 1994 and 1998.
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 United States, as well as an increase in the number of seals needing rescue and rehabilitation. The cause is as yet unknown but some of the reasons being suggested include changing distribution of prey, larger seal populations, increased commercial fishing in northern waters forcing seals further south to look for food, weather conditions and greater public awareness. Many of the seals requiring assistance were undernourished pups, while others were adults that had been injured, bitten by other seals or weakened by parasites or bacterial infections.
It is thought that environmental contaminants may be having adverse effects on harp seals, particularly those feeding in the St. Lawrence River estuary. The early breaking up and melting of ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence caused by unusually warm winters, possibly caused in the longer term by climate change and global warming, has also resulted in increased mortality of harp seal pups born on the ice there in recent years. Inadequate and thin ice floes mean fewer places for the mothers to give birth, and pups also drown or are crushed due to the breaking up of ice beneath them. The harp seal is listed as an Appendix III species under the Bern Convention.
Harp seals are a highly migratory species. After the breeding season, which takes place on the pack ice from February - March, the seals gather together to moult and then disperse widely into Arctic and subarctic waters to feed during the summer and autumn. Seals from the northwest Atlantic population arrive at Baffin Island and southwest Greenland by early summer. Later in the summer they may reach Ellesmere Island in the high Arctic, some reaching as far as Hudson Bay. In late September nearly all of the adults and most of the juveniles move southwards, ahead of the advancing ice, to their winter breeding grounds. However many of the juveniles and a few non-breeding adults stay in the north all year round. The harp seals that breed on the East Ice migrate after breeding into the Barents Sea, many being found along the ice edge in the north, and also into the Kara Sea. Those breeding on the West Ice have been found feeding in areas such as eastern Greenland, northern Iceland and northern Norway. There is no evidence of any interchange of breeding females between the different populations, but studies have shown that some young seals move between them.
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 / April (depending on the population) 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 2,5 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 "ragged-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 older males. Some seals do not develop the full "harp" shape on their coat - these are called "spotted harps".
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 leaves it and mates with one or more males, usually in the water. She then starts a very intense feeding period before it is time to moult. The males however remain at 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 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, sculpin, Greenland halibut, redfish and plaice. Also eaten are a large number of crustaceans such as amphipods, euphausids (including krill), and decapods (including shrimps and prawns). Harp seals routinely dive to depths of 100m while feeding. Known predators are polar bears, killer whales and sharks. Walruses also prey on harp seal females and pups in the White Sea.


Adults of both sexes measure 1.7m in length and weigh an average of 130kg. Pups are born measuring about 80-85cm in length and weighing 10-11kg on average. Both males and females reach sexual maturity at about 4 years of age. The mortality rate for harp seal pups in their first year is 20-30%. One harp seal was recorded diving to depths of up to 274m. Harp seals can live up to about 30-35 years of age.

Internet links

Video: harp seal whitecoat pup calling, its mother in background

Video: harp seal whitecoat pup wriggling and calling

IFAW video: watch weaned pups (beaters) playing in an ice pool

IFAW video: see weaned pups (beaters) and listen to a plea from IFAW scientist to stop the seal hunt

Humane Society video: explanation of how 2009 European law banning trade in seal products will help to stop the seal hunt: NOTE: contains some images of sealing.




Kovacs, K. (2008). Pagophilus groenlandicus. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.1. <www.iucnredlist.org>.