Harp seal

Learn about harp seals, including their life cycle, diet, distribution and population trends.

An adult harp seal. Photo credit: Garry Stenson.

A harp seal pup. Photo credit: Garry Stenson

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Life cycle

Harp seals have a lifespan of 25 to 40 years. Males and females are similar in size, averaging 1.6 metres in length and 130 to 150 kg in weight.

Harp seals spend the summer in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. In the fall, most of these seals migrate south to the Gulf of St. Lawrence or to the waters off southern Labrador and northern Newfoundland.

Females can give birth to 1 pup per year, between late February and mid-March. They require stable ice for giving birth and rearing their young.

Newborn pups weigh around 11 kg and are 80 to 85 cm long. They are nursed for about 12 days and gain over 2.2 kg per day. Once the pups are weaned, the females leave the ice to mate.

Pups begin to moult their white coat at around 10 days old and finish by 3 weeks of age.

Diet

Harp seals eat a varied diet that includes:

Effects on the ecosystem

We’ve conducted numerous studies on the impacts of seal predation on fish stocks.

For instance, in 2007 to 2008 we evaluated the effects of harp seals on fish stocks and found:

Through the 2019 cod assessments we determined that harp seals aren’t primary drivers of cod abundance off the coast of Newfoundland or southern Labrador.

Distribution

Range, migratory pathways and whelping locations of harp seals in the northwest Atlantic. Range is shown in grey and whelping locations are shown in black. The arrows represent migratory pathways

Harp seals are separated into 3 populations, each of which uses a specific pupping site. These are:

The Northwest Atlantic population is the largest, and is further into 3 separate herds based on breeding location:

Population trends

By the 1960s, commercial sealing activities severely depleted the harp seal population to low levels. Today, the harp seal population remains below pre-sealing levels.

We estimate the size of the harp seal population with a model incorporating estimates of:

The Northwest Atlantic harp seal population is currently healthy and abundant with an estimated population of 7.4 million animals. They have not been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.