Distribution and Habitat
Hooded seals are found only in the central and western North Atlantic (see map) and their distribution generally follows the seasonal limits of pack ice. There are four major breeding areas: the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the "Front" east of Newfoundland, Davis Strait (between Greenland and northern Canada) and the West Ice near Jan Mayan. Hooded seals are occasionally seen outside their normal range and have been spotted along the east coast of the U.S. south to Puerto Rico, on the West coast of the U.S. (as far south as California) and along the coast of Portugal.
Hooded seals are generally regarded as solitary in nature, except during moulting and mating. Animals from all four breeding areas appear to congregate near eastern Greenland to moult (see map). Hooded seals are sexually dimorphic with males being larger than females. Male hooded seals also have a black, crescent shaped, inflatable nasal sac that when flacid droops down over the muzzle. With one nostril closed, male hooded seals can also inflate their nasal septum through the opposite nostril, producing a large red balloon-like structure. Both are used in courtship and dominance displays. Females lack these secondary sexual characteristics. Females give birth to one pup yearly on pack ice, away from the edges of ice floes. Pups are weaned in just four days, the shortest time for any mammal. Hooded seals feed on a variety of fishes and invertebrates including Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides), redfish (Sebastes marinus), polar cod (Arctogadus glacialis) and squid.
Status and Protection
Two stocks of hooded seals are recognized; one in the Northwest Atlantic and a second in the Greenland Sea. There are currently no reliable abundance estimates for either stock although previous estimates for each stock were on the order of 500,000 individuals. Currently there are insufficient data to assess the status of either stock.
Threats to the Species
Hooded seals are hunted throughout their range and, considering the unknown status of both stocks, exploitation and international trade may constitute a threat to the species. This may be especially true where hunting is not well regulated. In Canada, for example, the 1996 quota (8,000) was exceeded by a factor of three (a total of 25,754 hooded seals were killed).
Anon. 1996. Seal Report. Licenses and seals harvested to date:31 May 1996. Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans. Ottawa, Canada. 1p.
ICES/NAFO 1995. Report of the Joint ICES/NAFO Working Group on Harp and Hooded Seals. Advisory Committee on Fishery Management ICES CM 1995/Assess:20 Ref. N.
Lavigne, D.M. and K.M. Kovacs. 1988. Harps and Hoods. Ice Breeding Seals of the Northwest Atlantic. Univ. of Waterloo Press. Waterloo, ON. Canada. 174pp.Reijnders, P. et al. 1993. Seals, Fur Seals, Sea Lions and Walrus. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN Seal Specialist Group. IUCN. Gland, Switzerland. 88pp.