Hooded Seal
(Cystophora cristata)


Distribution and Numbers
So named because of the inflatable crest or hood on the adult male's forehead, the ice-breeding hooded seal is found in deep waters in the far north Atlantic Ocean. The species is distributed from Svalbard in the east to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the west, giving birth on the drifting heavy pack ice in four main concentrations: (i) near Jan Mayen Island (the "West Ice"), (ii) off Labrador and northeastern Newfoundland (the "Front"), (iii) the Gulf of St. Lawrence (the "Gulf"), and (iv) the Davis Strait. The total hooded seal population is currently estimated to be 650,000, consisting of 250,000 in the Jan Mayen population and 400,000 in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. Individuals have been known to wander large distances and have been found in the last few years as far west as Alaska and as far south as the Canary Islands and the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
Cystophora cristata - Image 1

International Fund for
Animal Welfare
The shift to killing seals for their fur in the 1940s led to intensive hunting on the Front, particularly of hooded seal "bluebacks" (juveniles less than 14 months old) whose pelts are much valued. In 1983 the European Economic Community, in response to public pressure, instituted a ban on the importation of blueback products. This led to a reduction in the hunt, and the taking of bluebacks for commercial purposes has now been prohibited in Canada since 1987, although the killing of bluebacks for personal use is still allowed. The illegal killing of these young seals continues however, 22,846 bluebacks being seized in 1996 by the Canadian authorities after they had been illegally killed during the commercial seal hunt. Canadian sealers are attempting to have the prohibition lifted.
There is still an annual hunt of adult hooded seals on the Front. A total of 10,148 seals were officially killed there by Canadian hunters in 1998 and the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) has been set at 10,000 since 1999, although it was reported that only 201 hooded seals were killed in 1999. The actual kill is believed to be much higher than official statistics show, a recent report indicating that an extra 38-89 percent should be added to the official figures in order to obtain the true kill. Lack of enforcement of the official quota in 1996 resulted in sealers killing 25,000 hooded seals, over three times the legal limit of 8,000 at the time. Sealers are trying to have the quota increased although there currently appear to be no or limited markets for the species. Commercial hunting of hooded seals is prohibited in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in the Davis Strait. In early 1998 the Canadian Commons Fisheries Committee recommended that fishermen off Quebec and Labrador be allowed, in addition to the hunt, to catch seals in their nets and to sell the pelts from the hooded seals that they have taken.
Animal welfare violations during the hunt have been documented by conservation groups. An opinion poll released in 1997 also showed that 50% of Canadians wanted the east coast seal hunt to end, and that 75% opposed federal subsidisation of the hunt. 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. 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 levels of international demand for seal pelts.
Cystophora cristata - Image 2

International Fund for
Animal Welfare
There is a Norwegian and Russian hunt for hooded seals on the West Ice in the spring. The 1999 Norwegian sealing season saw a reduced hunt, reportedly due to difficult weather conditions, vessels in poor condition and seals being spread out over a large area. Only two vessels took part in the West Ice hunt that season and a total of 3,525 non-suckling pups and 921 older seals were killed. The 2000 season saw a further reduction, 1,871 seals being killed, of which 1,346 were non-suckling pups and 525 were older seals. The quota for the 2001 season was set at 10,300 adult hooded seals (1.5 non-suckling pups deemed equal to one adult). The Norwegian sealing industry is not economically viable and is dependent on government subsidies, 17 million Norwegian Kroner having been set aside for the sealing industry for the 2000 season. Blueback pelts are the most lucrative product produced by the sealing industry in Norway.
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 hooded and harp seals significantly and to work to increase the international market for seal products.
The average Russian hooded seal kill from 1986-1995 was 2,404. Native subsistence hunting also accounts each year for several thousand seals in Greenland (recently 4,000-6,000), and up to 100 seals in northern Canada. An unknown number of hooded seals are also shot each year by local hunters in Iceland.
Some conflict exists between hooded seals and fisheries. An unknown number of individuals become entangled in lumpsucker and cod gillnets in Iceland, lumpfish gillnets in Newfoundland and Labrador, and in fishing gear off Norway, while a small number are also entangled in nets of the Northeast multispecies sink gillnet fishery in the United States. Calls for culls of hooded seals have been made by Canadian fisheries interests who claim that hooded and other species of seals are jeopardising the recovery of groundfish stocks, although there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. Some hooded seals have also been killed by being trapped in the intake pipes of power plants in the United States.
The first few months of 2001 saw reports of a large increase in sightings of various seal species, including hooded 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, 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. The hooded seal is listed as an Appendix III species under the Bern Convention.
The amount of interchange between the different breeding populations is unclear. However it is known that the species is highly migratory. In April - June, after the breeding season, individuals travel long distances to feed and eventually gather together again in separate moulting areas on the ice from June - August. After moulting they disperse widely again to feed in the late summer and autumn before returning to the breeding areas in late winter. The species' migration patterns are not yet well documented. It appears however that most of the northwest Atlantic populations moult together in an area off the east coast of Greenland in the Denmark Strait and, after moulting, disperse northwards and also up the coast of western Greenland. Individuals from the Jan Mayen population appear to moult on two sites to the north of the breeding area and disperse to feed in areas such as Svalbard, Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands. Some moulting may also take place on the Baffin Bay drift ice. The wintering distribution of the species is not well known but many individuals from the northwest Atlantic populations are thought to winter out at sea in waters off Newfoundland.
Pups are born on the ice from mid-March to early April with a well-developed blubber layer and having shed their pre-natal coat. They are born with a slate blue-grey coat (hence the name "blueback"), with a pale cream colour on the belly, which they will moult after about 14 months. Nursing of the pup lasts for an average of only 3.8 days, the shortest lactation period of any mammal, during which the pup doubles in size from about 24kg to about 47kg. The mother loses about 10kg per day throughout the short nursing period, her rich milk containing 60-70% fat. As soon as the females start giving birth, the males compete with each other by display, pushing and fighting in the water and on the ice for proximity to females with pups. Cystophora cristata - Image 3

International Fund for
Animal Welfare
Attendant males wait around individual females to mate, creating "families" or "triads" that consist of the male, female and her pup. Successful males mate in the water with a female once her pup is weaned and then usually return a few hours later to attempt to gain access to other females. A recent case of a harp seal - hooded seal hybrid pup has been reported.
The adult male's "hood" is an enlargement of the nasal cavity which starts to develop when the male is about 4 years old. When inflated, the hood forms a high cushion on the head, up to twice the size of a football, while it hangs down in front of the upper lip when not inflated. The hooded seal male also has an inflatable nasal membrane which it can blow through one nostril like a red balloon and which makes a pinging sound when shaken. The hood and membrane are used for display and as a warning during the breeding season. Hooded seals have a black face and a bluish-grey coat, lighter on the sides and front, with irregular dark patches scattered over the body.
Hooded seal feeding usually takes place in deep water, normally at depths of 100-600m. The composition of the species' diet varies between areas. Fish prey includes Greenland halibut, redfish, cod, wolffish, capelin and herring. Octopus, squid, shrimps and mussels are also eaten. Known predators are polar bears, Greenland sharks and killer whales.
Cystophora cristata - Image 4

Photo: Keith Ronald,

Nova Southeastern University
Adult males measure an average of 2.5m in length (maximum 3m) and weigh about 300kg (maximum 400kg), while adult females are smaller, measuring an average of 2m in length (maximum 2.4m) and weighing about 160kg (maximum 230kg). Pups are born about 1m long and weighing about 24kg. Females mature at 3-6 years, males at 5-7 years. Hooded seals are known to dive repeatedly to over 1,000m and can stay submerged for over 50 minutes. Individuals can live to about 30-35 years of age.