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Frequently Asked Questions About Canada's Seal Harvest

  1. What are the current seal populations?
  2. Which species of seals are harvested?
  3. What are the Total Allowable Catches (TACs)?
  4. How many seals are harvested each year?
  5. What tools are used to harvest seals?
  6. How has the Canadian government proven its commitment to the humane treatment of seals?
  7. What is the three-step process, exactly?
  8. How old must seals be before they can be harvested?
  9. Why do sealers target young animals?
  10. Where are seals harvested?
  11. What percentage of seals is harvested in the Gulf of St. Lawrence versus Newfoundland and Labrador?
  12. How long does the harvest last? When does it begin and end?
  13. How many commercial licences were issued in 2010?
  14. Are the harvesting methods supported by veterinarians or non-governmental organizations?
  15. What is DFO doing to monitor the harvest?
  16. We are told that DFO takes sealing infractions seriously. What could happen if a sealer violates the regulations?
  17. What is the market value of seal pelts?
  18. How much money do sealers earn?
  19. How much of Canada's population benefits directly from the seal harvest?
  20. Given the unusual ice conditions in 2010, will the seal harvest threaten the harp seal population?
  21. What should people do if they believe they have witnessed a violation of the rules that govern the seal harvest?

 

1. What are the current seal populations?

Harp Seals:

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 9 million animals, more than four times what it was in the 1970s.

Hooded Seals:

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.

Grey seals:

There are two grey seal herds, with the main breeding concentrations in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence and on Sable Island, Nova Scotia. The grey seal herd population is estimated to be about 350,000 animals.

 

2. 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, with greys and hooded being a very small portion.

 

3. What are the Total Allowable Catches (TACs)?

Commercial quotas:

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 Fishereies and Oceans and are usually announced in early-to-mid March of the current calendar year.

The TACs for previous years were:

  • 330,000 in 2010
  • 280,000 in 2009
  • 275,000 in 2008
  • 270,000 in 2007

The hooded seal TAC for 2007 to 2010 was 8,200.

The grey seal TAC for 2010 and 2009 was 50,000. The TAC for both 2007 and 2008 was 12,000. Since 2007, a small commercial grey seal harvest has taken place on Hay Island in Nova Scotia. The TAC for 2010 was 2,220.

Annual TAC decisions are made by the Minister of Fishereies and Oceans and are usually announced in early-to-mid March of the current calendar year.

Personal quotas

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. 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.

Seals have been harvested for food, fuel, shelter, fur and other products for hundreds of years. DFO encourages the fullest possible commercial use of seals. Seal products consist of leather, handicrafts, and meat for human and animal consumption as well as seal oil, which is rich in Omega-3.  New product development, for example specialized seal food products and research into the use of harp seal heart valves in human heart surgery, is ongoing.

 

4. How many seals are harvested each year?

Harvest levels are highly variable and dependent on environmental and market conditions.

Harp seals:

In 2010, 67,327 harp seals were harvested , compared to 74,581 in 2009, and 217, 857 in 2008.

Hooded Seals:

Fewer than 400 hooded seals have been harvested annually in Canada since 1999. There were 10 in 2009.

Grey Seals:

In 2010, 7 grey seals were harvested, compared to 254 in 2009, and 1,472 in 2008.

A combination of factors contributed to the relatively low turnout in 2010, most notably the extraordinary ice conditions which made access to seal patches extremely difficult in certain areas, especially in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Lower prices and relatively limited demand by processors, driven in large part by economic considerations such as the global economic downturn, the higher Canadian dollar, and ongoing market uncertainty resulting from the proposed trade ban in the European Union, were also important factors.

5. 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 Magdelen 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.

 

6. How has the Canadian government proven its commitment to the humane treatment of seals?

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. 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.

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 the season.

 

7. What is the three-step process, exactly?

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" - Sealers must shoot or strike animals on the top of the cranium, with either a firearm or a hakapik or club;

Step 2) "Checking" - The sealer 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 sealer 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.

 

8. How old must seals be before they can be harvested?

Seals cannot be legally hunted until they have moulted their first coats and are living independently from their mothers. Seals are not usually harvested until they reach about 25 days old.

 

9.  Why do sealers target young animals?

Young harp seals provide the most valuable pelts and market conditions are stronger for this type of pelt.

 

10. Where are seals harvested?

There are subsistence harvests in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. The majority of the commercial seal harvest occurs on the Front in Newfoundland and Labrador, and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

 

11. What percentage of seals is harvested in the Gulf of St. Lawrence versus Newfoundland and Labrador?

Approximately 70 per cent of the commercial harvest occurs on the Front in Newfoundland and Labrador, while about 30 per cent occurs in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

 

12. How long does the harvest last? When does it begin and end?

The season for the commercial harvest of harp and hooded seals is from November 15 to June 14 as established in the Marine Mammal Regulations. The majority of sealing occurs in late March in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in early April on the Front.
The season for the subsistence harvest of ringed seals in Labrador is from April 16 to November 30, as established in the Marine Mammal Regulations.

 

13. How many commercial licences were issued in 2010?

Commercial:

In 2010, there were approximately 12,500 commercial licences issued to sealers.

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 the harvest for grey seals). In the meantime, a training and certification program is being developed and will be offered to current and future licence holders.

Personal:

1,641 personal use sealing licences were issued in 2010.  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.

 

14. Are the harvesting methods supported by veterinarians or non-governmental organizations?

The Government of Canada (GOC) has strict science-based regulations, which are reviewed regularly, to ensure a humane harvest.

Changes to the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) further enhance the humaneness of the annual 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. They are also consistent with many of the European Food Safety Authority’s conclusions.

 

15. What is DFO doing to monitor the harvest?

The seal harvest is closely monitored and tightly regulated to ensure the animals are killed in a quick and humane manner.

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 sealers 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 via the usage 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.  This will continue for the monitoring, control, and surveillance of 2011 seal harvesting activities.

Independent at-sea fishery observers are randomly deployed to individual sealing vessels. Observers are fully trained professionals and are deployed full-time in other commercial fisheries after the seal harvest. While they do not have enforcement powers, they augment the monitoring done by Fishery officers and immediately report any irregularities.
In 2008, an integrated enforcement plan was developed by Fisheries and Oceans to further enhance monitoring of the seal harvest. It includes a two-phase approach. The first phase is a continuation of the traditional regional MCS activities, including the daily monitoring of seal harvest activities through land, sea and air based patrols. Based on the increased level of observed sealing activity in 2009, there was a very high level of compliance with all elements fo the Marine Mammal Regulations, including the provisions regading humane harvesting.

The second phase is the deployment of an inter-regional Fishery officer MCS team. This team is a highly mobile force that maintains a 24 hour/7 day enforcement presence at the ice floes, and moves with the fleet as hunting activity changes. Fishery officers are deployed on a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker which is dedicated to the seal harvest enforcement program.

 

16. 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.

 

17. 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 $20 to $25 per grade A1 pelt in 2010. In 2009, the price was approximately $15 per grade A1 pelt.

 

18. How much money do sealers earn?

Sealers’ income depends on the market value of seal pelts. DFO does not keep statistics on current industry markets. However, sealers have noted that the income derived from sealing can represent a significant amount of their total annual income.

Sealing also presents economic benefits to remote coastal communities where employment opportunities are limited. The subsistence harvest is also a valuable link to Canadian cultural heritage.

 

19. How much of Canada’s population benefits directly from the seal harvest?

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.

 

20. Given the unusual ice conditions in 2010, will the seal harvest threaten the harp seal population?

A. Although there is 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 – 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. Although we expect that mortality will be higher than normal, it may not be as severe as anticipated, as long as conditions in these areas remain good.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada actively monitors ice conditions to ensure that management decisions are based on the best information available. The Department’s scientists take the information gathered on ice conditions into account when providing advice on catch levels and other management measures.

 

21. 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 to 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 to the Regulations can include court-imposed fines, and forfeiting of catches, gear, vessels and licenses.

Report a violation