Pinnipeds - Seals, Sea Lions and Walruses

Pinniped is the scientific name for the grouping of carnivorous marine mammals that includes seals, sea lions and walruses. Pinnipeds are adapted for life primarily in the water with fins or flippers instead of feet. They only move onto land (shores or ice floes) for breeding, raising their young and escaping from predators.

There are three families of pinnipeds:

  • True seals (phocidae)
  • Eared seals (otariidae)
  • Walrus (odobenidae)

True seals lack external ears. They have a short inflexible neck and undeveloped front limbs with claws to help them to crawl up on rocks and ice floes. The hind limbs do not rotate forward and are positioned vertically during swimming like a dolphin's tail.

There are seven species of true seals found in Canadian waters:

Eared seals have small external ears, long, flexible necks and rear flippers that can turn forward. They are more mobile on land than true seals and they can use all of their limbs on land. Sea Lions and Fur Seals are the two types of seals that make up this group.

In Canada, there are three species of eared seals found exclusively in Pacific waters:

Walruses have huge bodies and relatively small heads with no external ears. They have broad, bristled muzzles; and enormously elongated upper canine teeth forming heavy tusks. Like eared seals, walruses can turn their rear flippers forward and use all four limbs when moving onto shore.

Walruses are found primarily in arctic regions. The only species of walrus found in Canadian waters is the Atlantic Walrus. They can occur as far south as Nova Scotia, but the southern limits are usually James Bay and the Labrador coast.

Sea Otters are not pinnipeds. Like pinnipeds, they belong to the order Carnivora, but in the family Mustelidae.


Like all marine mammals, pinnipeds face a number of natural and human threats. Some populations of species of pinnipeds found in Canadian waters have been assessed as at risk by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), while others boast healthy populations.

The Canadian Species At Risk Act (SARA) was enacted to prevent Canadian indigenous species, subspecies, and distinct populations from becoming extirpated or extinct, to provide for the recovery of endangered or threatened species, and encourage the management of other species to prevent them from becoming at risk. For information on which species have been listed under the Act please visit the SARA Public Registry.

Certain Inuit and coastal communities hunt seal as an important cultural and subsistence activity. In addition, some seal species found in the waters off Canada's Atlantic and Arctic coasts are harvested commercially, e.g. harp and grey seals.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada manages this harvest through its seal management plan which sets out the rules and regulations for a safe, humane and sustainable seal harvest.

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