What are the current seal populations?
What effect are the poor ice conditions in recent years having on the seal population? Will the seal harvest threaten the harp seal population?
Which species of seals are harvested?
Where are seals harvested?
How long does the harvest last? When does it begin and end?
How old must seals be before they can be harvested? Why do sealers target young animals?
What are the Total Allowable Catches (TACs)?
How many seals were harvested in 2012? How does this compare to recent years?
Who can hunt seals? How many licences were issued in 2012?
What tools are used to harvest seals?
What is the Government of Canada doing to promote animal welfare in the seal harvest?
What is the three-step process, exactly?
What is DFO doing to enforce the rules?
What should people do if they believe they have witnessed a violation of the rules that govern the seal harvest?
We are told that DFO takes sealing infractions seriously. What could happen if a sealer violates the regulations?
What is the market value of seal pelts?
How much of Canada’s population benefits directly from the seal harvest?
What types of seal products are being made?
There are three harp seal populations in the north Atlantic, of which the stock off Canada and western Greenland is the largest. The Northwest Atlantic harp seal population is healthy and abundant with an estimated population of 7.3 million animals, over three times what it was in the 1970s.
There are two whelping 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 surveys up to 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.
There are two grey seal herds in Atlantic Canada, with the main breeding concentrations in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence and on Sable Island, Nova Scotia. The grey seal population is estimated to be about 350,000 animals.
Ringed seals are numerous and have a circumpolar distribution. There are thought to be approximately one million of these seals in the eastern Arctic. Ringed seals inhabit the coastal waters of Labrador, but are also observed on a regular basis along the northwest and northeast coasts of Newfoundland, in the northeast Gulf of St. Lawrence, and occasionally in more southern areas of the Province of NL.
Bearded seals inhabit the coastal waters of the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence, along the Labrador coast and northeastern Newfoundland. Population size in Atlantic Canada is not known.
Atlantic Harbour seal population size is not known, but is thought to be around 20,000-30,000 animals. The seals inhabit coastal waters along the Newfoundland and Labrador coast, throughout the Gulf of St. Lawrence and around Nova Scotia. They are abundant in the northeastern United States.
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.
Harp seals require ice for giving birth and rearing their young. For the past two years there has been very little ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the eastern coast of Newfoundland and southern Labrador – the traditional areas of the harvest. However, the Department’s ongoing monitoring indicates that some seals are instead congregating in non-traditional whelping areas farther north, where the ice conditions are better.
Harp seals account for almost all the seals harvested commercially, with greys and hooded representing a very small portion.
An estimated 1,500 ringed seals and between 50-200 bearded seals are thought to be taken annually for subsistence use, but harvest statistics are incomplete. There is no harvest of harbour seals.
In Canada, approximately 70 per cent of the commercial harvest 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
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.
Seals cannot be legally hunted until they have moulted their first coats and live 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.
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 D epartment’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 early-to-mid March of the current calendar year.
The harp seal TAC for 2012 was 400,000. This included 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:
The hooded seal TAC for 2012 was 8,200. This TAC has remained unchanged since 2007.
The grey seal TAC for 2012 was 60,000, for previous years, the TACs were:
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.
Approximately 69,000 harp seals were harvested during the commercial harvest in 2012. This is a significant increase from the 38,000 seals harvested in 2011. Previous harvest levels* for harp seals over the last decade are as follows:
*Figures are rounded to the nearest thousand.
There was not a significant commercial harvest of grey seals in 2012. Less than 10 grey seals were taken under commercial licences in 2012.
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 2012, there were over 10,000 commercial licences issued to sealers, but only an estimated 422 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 2,570 personal use sealing licences were issued in 2012. 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.
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.
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.
Beginning 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 beginning 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.
The three-step process for harvesting seals is a science-based approach developed to ensure that seals do not suffer unnecessarily. The three steps are:
Step 1) "Striking" – Seal harvesters must shoot or strike animals on the top of the cranium, with either a firearm or a hakapik or club;
Step 2) "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 that the seal is irreversibly unconscious or dead;
Step 3) "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 that the seal is dead.
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.
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.
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.
DFO does not regulate the processing and trade of seal products. However, publicly available information indicates that sealers were offered approximately between $25 and $27 per per grade A1 pelt in 2012. Factoring in pelts, fat, flippers and carcass, harvesters were offered approximately between $29 and $30 per seal.
Estimates from DFO and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador find that between 5,000 and 6,000 individuals derive some income from sealing. This is approximately 1 per cent of the total provincial population, and 2 per cent of the labour force. This is a substantial number of individuals in the context of small rural communities.
Many other locally-important industries share this characteristic. For example, crop production and forestry each account for less than 1 per cent of Canadian GDP, but their local economic importance is undisputable.
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.
New product development for specialized seal food products is ongoing.