FACTS from Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans Canada: Seal Management Measures (Credit: DFO Canada)



Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the federal department responsible for managing the seal hunt, introduced a five-year management plan in 2006, Atlantic Seal Hunt – 2006-2010 Management Plan. As part of this management plan, the Government of Canada is committed to taking a precautionary management approach, with quotas that are set at levels that ensure the health and abundance of seal herds. Current estimates suggest there are more than 5.5 million harp seals just off Canada’s shores.

Highlighting the government’s commitment to a humane, sustainable and economically viable commercial seal hunt, DFO has implemented several new management measures in 2008. These measures included the implementation of a three-step process, as a condition of licence, to hunt seals; accelerating the timing of the harp seal population survey to early 2008 instead of 2009 as originally planned; and the appointment of an independent reviewer to assess regional shares of the harp seal total allowable catch (TAC) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Seals are a valuable natural resource, and the seal hunt is an economic mainstay for numerous rural communities in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the North. As a time-honoured tradition, Canada’s seal hunt supports many coastal families who can derive as much as 35% of their annual income from the commercial seal hunt.


In 2003, DFO adopted an Objective-based Fisheries Management (OBFM) approach which incorporates the Precautionary Approach to management. This approach to the management of seals is still being used.

The Precautionary Approach attempts to define management objectives, establishes limits for conservation, and identifies specific management actions if these limits are reached. Key components include reference points and specific management actions to be established to aid decision makers in managing the resource.

OBFM uses reference points and control rules to establish management measures for a fishery. Reference points are pre-established population levels that trigger specific management actions when they are reached. Control rules are specific, pre-established actions that are triggered at certain reference points. Control rules include measures such as lower TACs, changes to season length and area closures. Reference points are set at 70%, 50% and 30%, of the maximum observed size of the herd (current estimate at 5.5 million).


In 2006, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) introduced a five-year management plan, Atlantic Seal Hunt – 2006-2010 Management Plan.

Within this management plan DFO establishes the total allowable catch (TAC) on an annual basis, to allow for adjustments to changing environmental conditions and changes in harvest levels in Arctic Canada and Greenland. As in the previous management plan, 2003-2005, OBFM and the Precautionary Approach are being applied to the management of harp seals from 2006-2010. This demonstrates Canada’s commitment to conservation and sustainability in the harp seal hunt.

For more information on the Atlantic Seal Hunt – 2006-2010 Management Plan please visit: www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/seal-phoque/reports-rapports/mgtplan-plangest0610/mgtplan-plangest0610_e.htm

Harp Seals:

* The hunting of harp seal pups (whitecoats) has been prohibited in Canada since 1987.

* A one-year TAC of 275,000 harp seals was set for 2008, out of a herd of roughly 5.5 million. This included allocations of 2,000 seals for personal use, 4,950 for Aboriginal initiatives and a carry forward of 16,186 seals for those fleets who did not capture their quota from 2007. Once the carry forward was deducted, existing sharing arrangements remained in place, with the Front (waters north and east of Newfoundland and Labrador) receiving about 70% of the TAC and about 30% for the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Hooded and Grey Seals:

* The hunting of young, hooded seals (bluebacks) has been prohibited in Canada since 1987.

* The annual TAC for hooded seals was set at 8,200 for 2008 for the Newfoundland and Labrador Front. As in previous years, the hunt remained closed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

* The TAC for grey seals for 2008 was 12,000 animals.

New Management Measures for 2008

* In 2008, DFO implemented recommendations from a 2005 report by the Independent Veterinarians Working Group by instituting, as a condition of licence, a refined three-step process for the humane dispatching of seals. The new process is expected to be formalized into the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) for the 2009 hunt.

* Highlighting this government’s commitment to a sustainable commercial hunt is the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans’ direction to accelerate the timing of the next harp seal population survey. To ensure DFO makes future decisions on the most up-to-date science, the Department has already started its population survey instead of waiting until 2009 as originally planned.

* Stable sharing arrangements will allow sealers to focus less on allocations and more on issues like sustainability and humane practices, and should take the industry a step closer towards slowing the pace of the hunt. Since 2006, representatives of sealing interests in the Gulf have discussed these sharing arrangements and have yet to agree on an appropriate sharing formula. On February 1, 2008, DFO advised the provinces and territories, as well as Canada’s sealing industry leadership, that 2008 regional shares would remain the same as 2007. Minister Loyola Hearn also advised that he had appointed an independent reviewer, Mr. Pierre-Marcel Desjardins (Associate Professor of Economics, Université de Moncton), to assess the regional shares of the harp seal TAC in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This assessment will be completed by fall 2008 and provided to Minister Hearn for consideration in time for the 2009 season.


Canada is committed to conservation and the sustainability of seal populations, which are a valuable natural resource that is hunted to provide economic benefits to coastal communities. The seal hunt is a sustainable activity based on sound conservation principles.

Harp Seals:

* When setting quotas for the harp seal hunt, Canada considers many factors such as ice conditions, pup mortality, natural mortality, incidental harvest or bycatch, the Greenland and Arctic hunts and commercial harvest levels.

* The Atlantic harp seal population is healthy and abundant; nearly triple what it was in the 1970s. The current estimated harp seal population remains stable and healthy at more than 5.5 million animals.

* Globally, there are three populations of this abundant species, the White Sea / Barents Sea populations, the Greenland Sea populations, and the largest being the Northwest Atlantic stock, found off Canada and western Greenland.

Hooded Seals:

* There are two populations of hooded seals, one in the northeast and one in the northwest Atlantic.

* In a survey conducted in 2005, with results published in 2006, it is estimated that the pup production from all herds is 120,100 and the total hooded seal population is 593,500. Annual hooded seal landings have been extremely low since 1998, usually between 300-400 animal

Grey Seals:

* There are two grey seal herds in Atlantic Canada, with the main breeding concentrations being in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence and on Sable Island, Nova Scotia. There is no hunting on Sable Island.

* The grey herd seal population is currently estimated to be about 300,000 animals


The Canadian seal hunt is closely monitored and tightly regulated. It is conducted in a safe and humane manner. Critics of the seal hunt do not put forward an accurate representation of the facts.

In 2005, an Independent Veterinarians’ Working Group (IVWG) on the Canadian Harp Seal Hunt was formed to review the Canadian seal hunt, and contribute to the promotion of animal welfare. The IVWG, consisting of veterinarians from five countries, stated that “the Canadian harp seal hunt is professional and highly regulated, and has the potential to serve as a model to improve humane practice.” The working group made recommendations based on improving the humaneness of the hunt, and in 2008 DFO acted on these recommendations to enhance Canada’s humane killing methods.

In consultation with industry ahead of the 2008 hunt, DFO implemented a third step in the process for the dispatching of seals. In addition to the existing regulatory requirements to properly strike and check for unconsciousness, this third step, that of bleeding to ensure death, was required as a condition of licence for the 2008 hunt and further strengthens current regulations.

On December 19, 2007, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a scientific study of the animal welfare aspects of global seal hunts. The study was launched at the request of the European Commission (EC), in response to a 2006 European Parliament declaration calling for a European Union (EU) wide ban on seal product imports. EFSA’s recommendations uphold the legitimacy and humaneness of the hunting practices and techniques that are used, regulated and enforced in Canada’s annual commercial seal hunt.

Canada’s Hunting Practices:

* The Government of Canada acted on the recommendations of the IVWG and implemented a three-step approach as a condition of licence for the 2008 commercial seal hunt.

* DFO licensing policy requires a commercial sealer to work under an experienced sealer for two years to obtain a professional licence. Sealers are also encouraged to take a training course on proper hunting techniques, product preparation and handling. Those taking seals for personal use must have a hunter’s capability certificate or big game license and attend mandatory training sessions before a licence can be issued. In 2004, DFO, at the request of sealers, instituted a freeze on new licences to allow industry to pursue professionalization, including education and instruction for new entrants.

* Sealers in the Southern and Northern Gulf of St. Lawrence, where about 25% of the hunt occurs, use both rifles and hakapiks while sealers on the ice floes on the Front (in the waters north and east of Newfoundland), where 75% of the hunt occurs, primarily use rifles. Hakapiks are only used in about 5-10% of Canada’s commercial seal hunt.

* Seal hunting methods have been studied and approved by the Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing. The Commission found that the methods used in hunting seals compare favourably to those used to dispatch any other wild or domesticated animal. These methods are designed to kill the animal quickly and humanely.


DFO Fishery Officers monitor the seal hunt to ensure sealers comply with Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR). They conduct surveillance of the hunt by means of aerial patrols, vessel patrols, dockside inspections of vessels at landing sites, and inspections at buying and processing facilities.

Peak seal hunting activity occurs in late March – early April, well after the whelping closure when the animals are living independently. During this period, DFO Fishery Officers are deployed to Coast Guard icebreakers and helicopters to monitor and board sealing vessels. Officers also perform increased aerial surveillance, as well as in-port inspections on a regular basis to validate landings data and ensure quota compliance.

There are over 100 Fishery Officers available for deployment to the seal fishery each year. Although not all of them are deployed at sea each day of the seal hunt, they perform a variety of duties and are available for peak periods and for quick deployment as circumstances warrant. DFO’s monitoring and enforcement is augmented as needed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Quebec Provincial Police. The Canadian Coast Guard provides ship and helicopter support.

The Government of Canada takes infractions seriously, and those who violate the MMR are prosecuted. In recent years, animal welfare organizations have participated in the seal hunt as observers. Observer permits come with certain conditions that must be adhered to under the MMR. A violation of these conditions under the MMR leads to swift legal action by DFO.

Sealers who fail to observe humane hunting practices, licence conditions and catch requirements are also penalized. The consequences of such illegal actions could include heavy court-imposed fines and the forfeiting of catches, fishing gear, vessels and licences. From 2002-2007, 180 charges were laid, resulting in 100 convictions to date. The charges include sealers and observer infractions and cover all aspects of the seal hunt and associated activities. With respect to the 2008 seal hunt, there are 59 active investigations regarding potential infractions under the Fisheries Act and the MMR.

Over the last four years, the number of At-sea Observers steadily rose to 23 in 2007. This added an additional 150 days of monitoring, control and surveillance activity dedicated to the seal hunt. At-sea Observers are located on sealing vessels to monitor the hunt, verify catch data, report violations, ensure that no whitecoats (young harp seals) or bluebacks (young hooded seals) are hunted, and to ensure that whelping patch closures and closed times are respected. Sealers co-fund the program, contributing approximately $90,000 to its operations in 2007.


The commercial seal hunt in Canada is an economic mainstay for coastal communities across Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the North. Estimates from DFO and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador (NL), have found that 5,000-6,000 individuals derive income from sealing. This represents approximately 1 per cent of the total provincial population, and 2 per cent of the labour force – a substantial number in the context of small, rural communities.

Although sealing may seem to be a minor industry within the larger economy, many locally-important industries share this characteristic. For example, crop production and forestry each account for less than 1 per cent of Canadian Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but their local economic importance is undisputable.

A sealer’s income depends on the market value of seal pelts. Though DFO is not responsible for keeping statistics on current industry markets, sealers have noted that income derived from sealing can represent up to 35 per cent of their annual income in a good year. This is a substantial amount considering sealers reside in rural, coastal communities with little or no employment options.

The markets for seal pelts vary significantly from one year to the next. In 2006, the landed value of the harp seal hunt was $33 million, with an average price per pelt of $97, making this the most profitable in memory – in part due to market demand for pelts, as well as good ice conditions in seal hunting areas. Comparatively, in 2007, the landed value was $12 million, with an average price per pelt received by sealers of approximately $55. In 2008, the average price per pelt decreased further was approximately $33 received by sealers.

Sealing is also important to coastal communities in Atlantic Canada and the North, for food security and nutrition. From a socio-cultural perspective the hunt is a way to “demonstrate individual hunting skills and to express a sense of cultural pride and identity.” (Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing)

There are other ways in which communities benefit from the seal hunt. All seal pelts undergo some processing in Canada, thereby creating employment opportunities in processing facilities. Between 6 and 8 facilities participate in seal processing, 4 of which are in NL and the remainder in Quebec.

Other economic activity generated by the seal hunt includes the marketing of seal oil capsules. The capsule form, rich in Omega-3 acids, are known to be helpful in preventing and treating hypertension, diabetes, arthritis and a number of other health problems.

The Government of Canada encourages the fullest possible commercial use of seals with the emphasis on leather, oil, handicrafts, and in recent years, meat for human and animal consumption.