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Harp Seals

(Pagophilus groenlandicus)Harp seal @ Cupsgue 12/22/11

The harp seal is named for the dark harp shaped pattern on its back. The dark horseshoe or harp shape is more distinct on adult males. The female is lighter and the juveniles of both sexes have a series of blotches along the back. These seals resemble the harbor seal but are slightly larger, growing to 6 feet and weighing up to 400 pounds. The harp seal's scientific name means "ice loving seal of Greenland" which is fitting for these inhabitants of the polar pack ice. Their migration roughly follows the edge of the pack ice which retreats northward in the summer and moves south in winter. Pups are born with a white coat which gives it ideal camouflage as it spends long periods of time waiting on the ice for the mother to return from feeding. The pups stay with the mother for approximately two weeks during which they almost triple their birth weight. At about this time they also shed their white coat. This excess fat sustains the young seal between the time the mother leaves and it learns to feed effectively on its own.

This species has endured intense hunting beginning with the Basques in the 16th century. During the 1700 and 1800's harp seals provided millions of barrels of oil that was shipped back to Europe where it was used mainly for lamp oil and lubricants. By the mid 20th century they were hunted mainly for their pelts which were used by the European fur industry for clothing. After Canadian Fisheries scientists discovered that the harp seal's population had become drastically reduced in the 1950's, the Government instituted quotas to reduce the killing.

Public attention became focused on this massive slaughter, particularly of the white coated pups off the coast of Newfoundland every March. Public outcry and political pressure has not diminished the hunt quotas, but has limited the markets for hapr seal pup skins. Yes, supposedly the commercial hunt was ended in 1987, but the hunt for "personal use" continues.  For a detailed review of the Canadian and other harp seal hunts, go to the Seal Conservation Society's harp seal page or the  MarineBio harp seal page.

For  a review of the harp seal quotas  (Total Allowable Catch or TAC) since 1952, go to http://www.harpseals.org/about_the_hunt/quota_tac.php


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