Frequently asked questions about the seal harvest

What are the current seal populations?

Harp Seals: There are three harp seal populations in countries across the North Atlantic. The Northwest Atlantic harp seal population in Canada is one of the largest. Canada’s harp seal stock is healthy and abundant with an estimated population of 7.4 million animals, almost six times what it was in the 1970s.

Hooded Seals: 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 percent per year.

Grey Seals: Canadian grey seals breed in three locations. About 80 percent of pups are born on Sable Island, while 15 percent are born in the Gulf of St Lawrence (Gulf) and 4 percent 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. This is more than a 60 fold increase since the 1960 population estimate of just under 8,000 animals.

Will the seal harvest threaten the harp seal population?

No. 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 evaluated 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.  From 2010 to 2013, scientists observed relatively poor ice conditions in some of the primary pupping areas, resulting in higher than normal pup mortality. However, ice conditions have been very good for juvenile survival in 2014 and 2015. The Department’s ongoing monitoring also 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. Harbour seals are protected from hunting.

Where are seals harvested?

In Canada, approximately 70 percent 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 percent occurs in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There are also subsistence harvests in the Canadian Arctic, as well as 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 fur and are living independently. For harp and grey seals, this first coat is white. Seals are not usually harvested until they are 25 days or older. Young hooded seals (bluebacks) cannot be harvested until they are 2-3 years of age which is when they lose their blueback pelage.

Young harp seals provide the most valuable pelts and market conditions are generally stronger for this type of pelt. There is also increasing interest in meat from both harp and grey seals.

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.

For past fisheries management decisions for all fisheries including seals, visit Fisheries Management Decisions

Since 1995, residents adjacent to sealing areas throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and recently other areas on the east coast 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 last season? How does this compare to recent years?

The following are commercial harvest levels for harp seals since 2002 (rounded to the nearest thousand):

  • 60,000 in 2014
  • 98,000 in 2013
  • 71,000 in 2012
  • 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

In 2014, 82 grey seals were taken under commercial licences.

Why is the TAC set well above harvesting numbers when there is currently no market for seal products?

The TAC is a management measure that indicates the upper limit of what can be commercially harvested in a year, without having a detrimental impact on the population of the species. The Government of Canada is committed to maintaining existing markets for seal products and supporting the development of potential new markets which means ensuring that the industry has sustainable access to this natural resource in order to fulfill evolving market needs.

Who can hunt seals? How many licences were issued last season?

Only individuals with a valid sealing licence, or Aboriginal peoples participating in a subsistence hunt in designated areas, are legally allowed to harvest seals.

In 2014, there were more than 12,000 commercial licences issued to sealers, but only an estimated 1,320 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 2,700 personal use sealing licences were issued in 2014. 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. Personal use licences are also available in other jurisdictions but are not frequently used. This type of licence allows the holder to take up to six seals for personal consumption. Seals taken under a personal use licence cannot be used for commercial purposes.

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 percent 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 percent of the harvest occurs, primarily use rifles.

A hakapik is a 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 government believes in the sustainable use of a renewable resource such as the harp seal. 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 Northwest Atlantic harp seal population is healthy and abundant with an estimated population of 7.4 million animals, almost six times what it was in the 1970s. There is no conservation reason to end the harvest.  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.

In Canada’s remote coastal and northern communities, sealing is an important part of the way of life and a much needed source of income for many families. Some sealers have stated that their income from sealing can represent a significant amount of their total annual income. Beyond fur, seals are also used to produce meat products and oil products rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The revenues generated from this activity are an integral and vital component of the annual income earned by sealers. This fishery contributes to the diversity of income sources available in fishing communities. In some years, good seal prices or harvests offset lower prices or poor catches in other fisheries. 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, 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.

What is the Government of Canada doing to promote animal welfare in the seal harvest?

The Government of Canada has strict science-based regulations, which are reviewed regularly, to ensure a humane harvest. The Marine Mammal Regulations stipulate that seals must be killed quickly using only high-powered rifles, shotguns firing slugs, clubs or hakapiks. The regulations contain explicit requirements for the types of instrument and how they are 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.

All licence holders wishing to participate in the commercial seal harvest must have completed training on the three-step process for harvesting seals, set out in the Marine Mammal Regulations. Although there is currently a freeze on professional sealing licences, licensing 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 exactly is the three-step process?

The three-step process for harvesting seals is a science-based approach developed to ensure seals do not suffer unnecessarily. The three steps are:

Step one: "Striking" — Seal harvesters must shoot or strike animals on the top of the cranium, with either a firearm or a hakapik or club.

Step two: "Checking" — The seal harvesters must palpate both the left and right halves of the cranium, following striking (either with a firearm, hakapik or club), to ensure that the skull has been crushed. This ensures the seal is irreversibly unconscious or dead.

Step three: "Bleeding" — The seal harvester must bleed the animal by severing the two axillary arteries located beneath the front flippers and must allow a minimum of one minute to pass before skinning the animal. Bleeding ensures the seal is dead.

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 law enforcement agencies, 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 grade A1 pelt in 2014.

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.

Why does the Government of Canada continue to support global market access for seal products?

The Government of Canada is committed to maintaining existing markets for commercial seal products and supporting the development of potential new markets.

Seals have been harvested for food, fuel, clothing and other products for hundreds of years. Over time, the use and market for seal products has evolved considerably and Canada continues to value this natural resource as Aboriginal and coastal communities rely on this industry to make a living.

Uncertainty in global markets and market access restrictions, such as the European Union (EU) and other jurisdictional seal product bans have had an impact on exports in recent years. Despite these restrictions, export statistics demonstrate that there is global demand for seal products. Between 2005 and 2011, Canada exported over $70 million worth of seal products to more than 35 countries, including seal pelts, value-added garments, and edible seal products (oil and meat). Between 2005 and 2014, Canada exported over $66.5 million worth of seal products to more than 48 countries. Canada challenged the EU ban through the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement process.

Expanding and maintaining access to markets is of paramount importance for exporting countries such as Canada. As a member of the WTO, Canada supports a rules-based global trading system and believes that consumers should have the opportunity to make their own informed purchasing decisions. The imposition of bans or restrictions on seal products creates a dangerous precedent for other products which are traded globally.

In the 2015 federal budget, the Government of Canada announced $5.7 million over 5 years to establish systems to certify seal products resulting from hunts traditionally conducted by Aboriginal communities in order to meet the requirement set by the EU, to provide business advice and training to help Aboriginal communities develop effective business practices, and to support efforts by the broader sealing industry to increase export market opportunities.

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