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Harp Seals - Phoca groenlandica

By: C.M.Shorter

Harp Seals - Phoca groenlandica, 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 northwest Atlantic population breeds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (the "Gulf") and off the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland (the "Front"), the east Greenland population breeds near Jan Mayen Island (the "West Ice"), and the Barents Sea population breeds in the White Sea (the "East Ice"). Harp seals are very closely associated with pack ice, undergoing spring migrations of up to 2,500 km on their way to summer feeding grounds. They return south ahead of the new ice in the fall. All three populations exhibit similar patterns of annual migrations. Timing of specific events such as pupping, may vary slightly according to their geographic range.

Picture of Baby Harp Seal
Harp Seal

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Baby Harp Seal

Scientific Name: Pinnipedia (Seals and Sea Lions)


> Order: Carnivora
> Family: Phocidae
> Genus: Pagophilus
> Species: P. groenlandicus

Description: Silver-white fur with black head; dark markings on the back that resemble harps; wide face; with round close set eyes.

Range: North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans from northern Russia, to Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada.


Habitat: Open sea and edges of ice packs.

Average Weight: Males 290 lbs, with females being slightly smaller.

Average Length: Up to 5.5 ft (between 1.7m and 130kg) in length.

Diet: Cod, capelin, herring, halibut and small crabs.

Gestation Period: 11.5 months, with 4.5 months dormancy of the fertilized ovum (delayed implantation).

Pup Info: A single pup weighing about 11kg (22 lbs) is born each spring from mid February to March. Pups are born with white fur. Unfortunately, Harp seal pups are currently "harvested" for their fur. 95% of the pups taken are only a few days of age to 3 months.

Lifespan: Up to 30 years

Predators: Killer Whales, Sharks, Man

Social Structure: Groups, known to be gregarious in nature.

Population: Precise figures for harp seal abundance are unavailable. However recent estimates are: 4.0 - 6.4 million in the northwest Atlantic population. Atlantic harp seal stocks have rebounded from 1.8 million in 1970 to over 5.2 million, according to the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Amid calls for boycotts and criticism in the 1980s, Canada stopped high-scale seal hunting and banned the killing of pups older than 12 days with much evidence showing these regulations are not properly enforced.

Conservation Status: Common

Threats: All three populations are hunted annually under proposals to cull harp seal populations. Over-exploitation, particularly in the Northwest Atlantic, along with an expanding and unregulated trade in seal products remain the single largest threat. Other threats include incidental catches in fishing gear and environmental contaminants.

Other Information: It can dive to depths of over 900 feet. Despite their rotund appearance, adults can move with stealth speed over ice and in the open sea.

What Can I Do to Help?: Worldwide effort is underway to stop the inhumane methods of "harvesting" these animals as sanctioned by the Canadian government primarily for their beautiful white fur. Canadian authorities have increased the number of harp seals that can be culled to close to one million during the 2003 to 2005 period, and the take this year could go as high as 350,000. Also, body parts sold as an aphrodisiac in the Far Eastern Markets. There are many conservation and animal rights organizations such as IFAW International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Seal Conservation Society, and for additional reference.

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Harp Seals