- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Phocidae
- Genus: Pagophilus
- Species: P. groenlandicus
Distribution and Habitat
Harp seals inhabit the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans from northern Russia, to Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada. They are separated into three populations based on where they breed; the White Sea, the `West Ice' and the Northwest Atlantic `Gulf' and `Front' (see map). Harp seals are closely associated with pack ice, undergoing spring migrations of up to 2,500 km on their way to summer feeding grounds, returning south ahead of the new ice in the fall. All three populations exhibit similar patterns of annual migration, although the timing of specific events such as pupping, varies slightly from place to place.
Adult male harp seals grow to about 1.7 m and 130 kg; females are slightly smaller. Gregarious by nature, harp seals haul out in dense herds to give birth and moult. Females and males reach sexual maturity at approximately 4-6 years of age. A single pup weighing about 11 kg (22 lbs) is born each year from mid February to March. Mating occurs after the pups are weaned at about 12 days. After mating, adult males are joined on the moulting patches by immature and non-breeding seals, followed by adult females. Harp seals consume a wide range of prey species and their diet appears to vary with age, season, location and year. Harp seals can live up to 30 years.
The Northwest Atlantic harp seal population is the largest and most studied. The 2000 population size is estimated to be 5.2 million animals. The population is now showing signs of reaching the limit of its food base and may be declining as a result of increased sealing since 1996. In 1994 pup production and population size for the West Ice were estimated at 59,000 and 286,000, respectively. A 1998 survey in the White Sea found that pup production was on the order of 300,000 - 400,000, higher than previously thought. These results are consistent with a total population size of about 1.5 to 2.0 million animals.
Threats to the Species
All three populations are hunted annually. Over-exploitation, particularly in the Northwest Atlantic, and an expanding and unregulated trade in seal products remain a threat. Other potential threats include: proposals to cull harp seal populations, ostensibly to benefit fisheries; reduced food availability due to human overfishing or climate change; incidental catches in fishing gear; and, possibly, environmental contaminants.
Lavigne, D. 1996. Comments regarding IUCN Resolution CGR1.79: Conservation of Harp Seals. IMMA Inc., Guelph, ON.
Lavigne, D. and K. Kovacs. 1988. Harps & hoods: ice-breeding seals of the Northwest Atlantic. U. of Waterloo Press, Waterloo, Canada. 174pp.Reijnders, P. et al. 1993. Seals, Fur Seals, Sea Lions, and Walrus. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN Seal Specialist Group. Gland, Switzerland. 87pp.