Managing the seal harvest

Canada’s seal harvest is tightly regulated and managed through an Integrated Fisheries Management Plan that identifies who can participate in the harvest, and where, when and how it is conducted to ensure it is sustainable, safe and humane.

Ensuring the seal harvest is sustainable

The commercial seal harvest is managed on the basis of sound conservation principles and in accordance with the internationally recognized precautionary approach to ensure the resource is conserved for generations to come. The precautionary approach requires acting with caution in the absence of certain, reliable, or adequate scientific information, with the objective that the population remains above a pre-established scientific reference point.

The total allowable catch (TAC) is determined every year and sets the upper limit of what can be harvested commercially. TAC decisions are based on long-term conservation and sustainability principles and take into consideration the department’s management plan, the latest science advice (including changes in reproductive rates, the effects of climate change, ice conditions, etc.) and consultation with industry.

Population estimates are revised through a scientific peer-review process that includes departmental scientists as well as experts from academia, non-government organizations and, in certain cases, industry. These estimates rely on information from various sources, including regular overflights of whelping and breeding areas, biological sample collection and analysis (e.g. reproductive and growth rates), and comprehensive surveys conducted every four or five years.

Seal species and populations

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 harvesting.

Canada’s seal population is healthy and abundant. The Northwest Atlantic harp seal population is estimated to be 7.4 million animals, almost six times what it was in the 1970s. The Canadian Atlantic grey seal population is estimated to be 505,000 animals. 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.

Participating in the harvest

Harvesters require either a commercial or personal use licence to harvest seals. Licence holders are required to adhere to rules set out in the Marine Mammal Regulations and conditions of licence, including the humane harvesting of seals. A freeze on new commercial harp seal licences is in effect for all areas of Atlantic Canada and Quebec. 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. Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous coastal residents who reside north of 53°N latitude can continue to harvest seals for subsistence purposes without a licence.

Observing the harvest

The harvest is open for anyone to observe. Those without an observation licence must stay at least one nautical mile away from sealing activities, whereas the distance is 10 metres for those with an observation licence. Available through local DFO offices, seal observation licences are valid for one day and can be renewed on a daily basis.

All licence holders must abide by the conditions of their licence. Anyone with the intention to disrupt the seal harvest or to interfere with sealing activities will not be eligible for an observer licence.

Fishery officers and other government agents will be at sea, in the air and on the ice monitoring the activities of sealers and observers. Violations of the conditions of observation licence could result in charges under the Marine Mammal Regulations.

Harvesting season

As set out by the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR), the season for the commercial harvest of harp and hooded seals is 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. Indigenous persons can also harvest seals throughout the year for food, social, and ceremonial purposes and as provided in Land Claims Agreements.

Harvesting areas

Harvesting areas for the seal harvest are set by the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR). 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.

Map of Newfoundland and Labrador (Front) sealing areas

Newfoundland and Labrador (Front)
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Map of the Gulf of St. Lawrence sealing areas

Gulf of St. Lawrence
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Atlantic Seal Advisory Committee

The Atlantic Seal Advisory Committee is the primary consultative body between the Department and sealing stakeholders. The committee meets as required to develop advice for the Minister on management issues, and provide information and updates on a variety of related activities such as market access and international trade issues. Regional consultation meetings also occur prior to the Atlantic Seal Advisory Committee meeting to report on issues of interest to local seal harvesters and to determine priority items to be discussed at the Atlantic-wide meeting.