Sealing in Canada - Frequently Asked Questions
What are the current seal populations?
There are three harp seal populations in the north Atlantic; the stock in Atlantic Canada and western Greenland is the largest. The Northwest Atlantic harp seal population is healthy and abundant with an estimated population of 7.4 million animals, almost three times what it was in the 1970s.
There are two whelping (pupping) areas for hooded seals in Atlantic Canada: one in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the other off Newfoundland and Labrador. The Gulf of St. Lawrence component is small (approximately 10,000 animals) and harvesting of this herd is prohibited. Based on the last survey in 2005, the total population of Northwest Atlantic hooded seals was estimated at 600,000 animals and was growing at a rate of 0.5% per year.
Canadian grey seals breed in three locations. Most pups (80%) are born on Sable Island, while 15% are born in the Gulf of St Lawrence (Gulf) and 4% are born along the coast of Nova Scotia (CNS). These proportions have changed over time, with a decline in the fraction of the population born in the Gulf. The Canadian Atlantic grey seal population is estimated to be about 505,000 animals.
Will the seal harvest threaten the harp seal population?
The Canadian seal harvest is closely monitored and managed under the Precautionary Approach to ensure the resource is conserved for generations to come. A wide range of factors, including changing ice conditions and their potential impact on seal mortality rates, are carefully analyzed each year and taken into account when making management decisions.
What effect are the poor ice conditions in recent years having on the seal population?
Harp seals require stable ice for giving birth and rearing their young. Mortality of young-of-the-year seals associated with very poor ice conditions has been incorporated into the population assessments since 2003. In recent years (e.g. 2010, 2011, 2013), scientists have observed relatively poor ice conditions in some of the primary pupping areas, resulting in higher than normal pup mortality. However, the Department’s ongoing monitoring indicates that some seals may be congregating in non-traditional whelping areas farther north, where the ice conditions are better.
Which species of seals are harvested?
Six species of seals – the harp, hooded, grey, ringed, bearded and harbour – are found off the Atlantic coast of Canada, although ringed and bearded seals are typically Arctic species. Of the six species, harp seals account for almost all the seals harvested commercially in Canada, with only a small harvest of grey and hooded seals.
Where are seals harvested?
In Canada, approximately 70 per cent of the commercial harvest of harp seals occurs in the area known as the “Front” off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, while about 30 per cent occurs in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There are also subsistence harvests in the Canadian Arctic. There are both commercial and subsistence harvests in Greenland.
Newfoundland and Labrador (Front)
Gulf of St. Lawrence
How long does the harvest last? When does it begin and end?
The season for the commercial harvest of harp and hooded seals is set in the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) as November 15 to June 14. These dates may be adjusted in consultation with sealing fleets and set out in Variation Orders, taking into account environmental and biological conditions.
The majority of sealing occurs between late March and mid-May, beginning around the third week in March in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, and about the second week in April off Newfoundland and Labrador (the Front). The timing of harvest activities in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence depends largely on the movement of ice floes on which seals are located. The peak commercial harvest in this area is in early April.
The season for the commercial harvest of grey seals set in the MMR is March 1 to December 31. Like the harp seal harvest, these dates may also be adjusted by Variation Order based on consultations with participants, taking into account scientific advice. The season for the subsistence harvest of ringed seals in Labrador is from April 25 to November 30 as established in the MMR.
Residents of Labrador north of 53°N latitude and the Arctic can harvest seals of any species at any time of the year for subsistence purposes, except for some restrictions on ringed seals. Aboriginal persons can also harvest seals throughout the year for food, social, and ceremonial purposes and as provided in Land Claims Agreements.
How old must seals be before they can be harvested? Why do sealers target young animals?
Seals cannot be legally hunted until they have moulted their first coats and are living independently. Seals are not usually harvested until they are 25 days or older.
Young harp seals provide the most valuable pelts and market conditions are generally stronger for this type of pelt.
What are the Total Allowable Catches (TACs)?
A total allowable catch (TAC) sets the upper limit of what can be harvested commercially in any given year. TAC decisions are based on long-term conservation and sustainability principles and take into consideration the Department’s Management Plan, scientific advice, as well as consultation with industry.
Annual TAC decisions are made by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and are usually announced in March of the current calendar year.
The harp seal TAC for 2014 is 400,000. This includes a total developmental allocation of 20,000 seals for two innovative projects in the Magdalen Islands, as well as an allocation to the Nunatsiavut G overnment and the North Smokey Fishermen Association in Nova Scotia.
For previous years, the TACs for harp seals were:
- 400,000 in 2011, 2012 and 2013
- 330,000 in 2010
- 280,000 in 2009
The hooded seal TAC for 2014 is 8,200. This TAC has remained unchanged since 2007.
The grey seal TAC for 2014 is 60,000, and has remained unchanged since 2011. Other TACs for previous years were:
- 50,000 in 2010 and 2009
- 12,000 in 2008 and 2007
Since 1995, residents adjacent to sealing areas throughout Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec have been allowed to harvest up to six seals for their own use with a personal use licence. Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal coastal residents who reside north of 53°N latitude can continue to harvest seals for subsistence purposes without a licence.
How many seals were harvested in 2013? How does this compare to recent years?
Approximately 94,000 harp seals were harvested during the commercial harvest in 2013. This is an increase from the 71,000 seals harvested in 2012. Previous harvest levels* for harp seals over the last decade are as follows:
- 38,000 in 2011
- 69,000 in 2010
- 77,000 in 2009
- 218,000 in 2008
- 225,000 in 2007
- 355,000 in 2006
- 324,000 in 2005
- 366,000 in 2004
- 290,000 in 2003
- 312,000 in 2002
*Figures are rounded to the nearest thousand.
There was not a significant commercial harvest of grey seals in 2013. 106 grey seals were taken under commercial licences in 2013.
Who can hunt seals? How many licences were issued in 2013?
Only individuals with a valid sealing licence, or Aboriginal peoples participating in a susbsistence hunt in designated areas, are legally allowed to harvest seals.
In 2013, there were over 13,000 commercial licences issued to sealers, but only an estimated 975 of those were active.
A freeze on new commercial seal licences is in effect for all areas of Atlantic Canada and Quebec (with the exception of Aboriginal sealers, and for the harvest of grey seals).
Approximately 2,800 personal use sealing licences were issued in 2013. Since 1995, personal use sealing licences have been issued to residents adjacent to sealing areas in Newfoundland and Labrador (south of 53°N latitude), the Quebec North Shore, the Gaspé Peninsula and the Magdalen Islands. This type of licence allows the holder to take up to six seals for personal consumption.
What tools are used to harvest seals?
The Marine Mammal Regulations stipulate that only high-powered rifles, shotguns firing slugs, clubs or hakapiks may be used in the seal harvest. Sealers in the Magdalen Islands, the Quebec North Shore and in Western Newfoundland, where about 30 per cent of the harvest occurs, use both rifles and hakapiks (or clubs). Sealers on the ice floes on the Front (in the waters east of Newfoundland), where 70 per cent of the harvest occurs, primarily use rifles.
A hakapik is an efficient tool designed to harvest the animal quickly and humanely. Changes in 2009 to the Marine Mammal Regulations prohibit the use of the hakapik as the instrument for the initial strike of seals over the age of one year.
Why does the Government of Canada support the Canadian seal harvest?
The Canadian seal harvest is one of the world’s most highly regulated and monitored harvests of wild animals. As with all Canadian fisheries, Fisheries and Oceans Canada supports and regulates the seal harvest and is committed to ensuring it is sustainable and conducted safely and humanely.
The commercial seal harvest is managed on the basis of sound conservation principles. The harp seal population was estimated to be about 7.4 million in 2013, which is more than three times the population in the 1970s. There is no conservation reason to end the harvest. In fact, a number of conservation groups agree that a regulated and responsible harvest of the seal herd is appropriate, provided that it is sustainable in the long term.
A number of Canadians depend on the seal harvest as a way to subsidize their income — particularly those living in rural coastal communities where jobs are limited. In fact, some sealers have stated that their income from sealing can represent a significant amount of their total annual income. The Canadian seal harvest is a perfectly legitimate industry and an important economic and cultural activity in communities in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the Arctic.
Canadian seal harvesters, processors, artisans and Inuit produce some of the finest quality products in the world and contribute to Canada’s economy. The value of these products to northern communities, not only in terms of dollars for local economies but also for their significance to culture and tradition, is of key importance to the Government of Canada. Some Aboriginal people in Canada have a constitutionally protected right to harvest marine mammals, including seals, for survival reasons, as long as the harvest is consistent with conservation needs and other requirements.
Canada remains steadfast in its position that the seal harvest is a humane, sustainable and well-regulated activity. Any views to the contrary are based on myths and misinformation.
Links to information on Canada’s appeal of the WTO decision on EU ban on seal products:
- News release (March 17, 2014) — Minister Aglukkaq Leads Delegation to Defend Canadian Seal Hunt at World Trade Organization
- News release (November 25, 2013) — Harper Government to Appeal WTO Decision on EU Ban on Seal Products
What is the Government of Canada doing to promote animal welfare in the seal harvest?
The Government of Canada (GOC) has strict science-based regulations, which are reviewed regularly, to ensure a humane harvest. The Marine Mammal Regulations stipulate that seals must be harvested quickly using only high-powered rifles, shotguns firing slugs, clubs or hakapiks. The regulations contain explicit requirements for how these tools must be used, and for assessing the consciousness of the seal.
In 2009, a number of amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations came into force to further enhance the humaneness of the Canadian seal harvest. The amendments were developed based on recommendations from the Independent Veterinarians Working Group (with members from Canada, France, the United States, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) and in consultation with provincial and territorial governments, the sealing industry, veterinarians, and others.
As a complement to detailed licence conditions, the amendments introduce Canada’s science-based, three-step process to ensure a humane harvest. The updated regulations also provide clarity for anyone monitoring or observing the harvest, who must be able to distinguish good practice from bad practice when it comes to animal welfare.
In 2014, all licence holders wishing to participate in the commercial seal harvest will have to have completed training on the three-step process for harvesting seals, set out in the Marine Mammal Regulations. While the training only becomes mandatory for all sealers to be licenced in 2014, it has already been offered and delivered to thousands of licenced sealers on a voluntary basis since 2009.
Licencing policy requires a commercial sealer to work under an experienced sealer for two years to obtain a professional licence. In addition to the two-year apprenticeship program for new sealers, governments, industry and other stakeholders deliver comprehensive information workshops in advance of each season.
What is DFO doing to enforce the rules?
The seal harvest is closely monitored and tightly regulated.
Fishery officers have the primary responsibility for Monitoring-Control-Surveillance (MCS) activities and enforcement of the regulations governing the harvest. Other police forces, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Quebec provincial police, may also be involved in monitoring the seal harvest.
Fishery officers conduct surveillance of seal harvester and sealing activities using aerial surveillance (both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters); vessel monitoring systems (satellite tracking); at-sea patrols and inspections; dockside/landing site patrols and inspections; and inspections at buyer/processor sites/facilities. DFO's ability to monitor seal harvesting operations in 2009 was enhanced through the use of remote video technology deployed to both aerial (helicopter) and sea-based platforms. This technology was used to augment the traditional monitoring, control, and surveillance operations conducted by Fishery officers deployed to vessels, on land, and with fixed wing aircraft.
As in many other fisheries, independent at-sea fishery observers are randomly deployed to individual sealing vessels. While they do not have enforcement powers, they augment the monitoring done by Fishery officers and immediately report any irregularities.
What should people do if they believe they have witnessed a violation of the rules that govern the seal harvest?
Individuals who believe they have witnessed an infraction of the Marine Mammal Regulations should bring any relevant information to the attention of their local Fisheries and Oceans Canada office. Alleged infractions are taken very seriously and investigated by DFO officers. The consequences of a violation of the Regulations can include court-imposed fines, and forfeiting of catches, gear, vessels and licences.
We are told that DFO takes sealing infractions seriously. What could happen if a sealer violates the regulations?
Sealers who fail to observe humane harvesting practices, licence conditions, and catch requirements are penalized. Any violations of Canada’s regulations are taken very seriously. The consequences of such illegal actions are decided by the court and could include court-imposed fines, licence prohibitions and the forfeiting of catches, fishing gear, vessels and vehicles. In a 2008 court decision, a sealer was fined $25,000 and prohibited from participating in the first (and most lucrative) day of the 2009 harvest.
What is the market value of seal pelts?
DFO does not regulate the processing and trade of seal products. However, publicly available information indicates that sealers were offered approximately $32.50 per per grade A1 pelt in 2013.
What types of seal products are being made?
Seals have been harvested for food, fuel, clothing and other products for hundreds of years.
Seal pelts are transformed into a wide range of final products including coats, vests, hats, boots, mittens, trims, seal leather items, and novelty items. Seal oil is used in Omega 3 health products, in paints and for fuel in Northern/Inuit communities. Seal meat is sold in a variety of raw and prepared forms for both human and animal consumption.
The Government of Canada is committed to maintaining existing markets for commercial seal products and supporting the development of potential new markets.
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