Length: 1.5 – 1.9 m (5 - 6’)
Weight: 85 - 180 kg (180 – 400 lbs)
Population size in Canada: 4.6 – 7.2 million (Northwest Atlantic population)
Population size in World: < 9.5 million
Conservation status in Canada: Not listed (COSEWIC/SARA)
Conservation status in World: Low-risk of least concern (IUCN)
Latin Name: Pagophilus groenlandicus
Other Names: Greenland Seal, Saddle Seal, Saddleback Seal
Order: Pinnipedia (“fin-footed carnivores” which includes seals, fur seals, sea lions and walrus)
Family: Phocidae (true seals)
- Up to 1.9 m (~ 6’) in length and 180 kg (~ 400 lbs)
- Relatively small broad, flat head
- Narrow snout
- Short, narrow flippers
- Coloration varies with age:
- Young pups have a thick white coat.
- Older pups have a short silvery coat with black spots along the sides and back.
- Adults have light grey coat with a black face and a large black horseshoe or harp-shaped marking along their sides and back. The black face and harp-shaped pattern develops with age, therefore younger adults may not have a black face and may have scattered black spots on the sides and back and only a partially developed harp-shaped marking.
Harp seals are a moderate sized seal, averaging 1.6 m (~ 5’) in length and 130 kg (~ 287 lbs). Males and females are of similar size and weight, with males being generally only slightly larger than females. They have a thick, robust body with a relatively small broad and flat head, short narrow flippers, and a narrow muzzle that can appear upturned in adults. The most distinctive feature of harp seals is their coloration/marking pattern, which changes as the seals grow and mature. Newborn seals are born with a thick yellow fur and are known as “yellowcoats”. After about three days their fur becomes bleached and turns white, at which point the seals become known as “whitecoats”. The pups start to shed their white fur after they are about 12 days old, and are referred to as “raggedy jackets” due to the appearance of the much darker and shorter coat underneath patches of their white fur. After about 18 days, the pups have completely lost their white fur to reveal a short silvery coat with small black spots along the sides and back. These seals are known as “beaters”. Once the seals turn one year old they become known as “bedlamers” and start to undergo annual molts. As the seals grow and continue to molt each year, their spots become larger and start to form a distinctive horseshoe or harp-shaped marking along their sides and back. Adult harp seals are light grey with a black face (often including a black chin, upper-neck and top of the head), and have wide black bands with irregular edges that dip along their sides and fuse above the shoulders (the harp-shaped marking). Younger adults may not have a black face and may have scattered black spots on their sides and back with only a partially developed harp-shaped marking.
Harp seals undergo long seasonal migrations between feeding and breeding grounds. Each fall (by late September), the seals of the Northwest Atlantic population travel from summer feeding grounds off the western coasts of Greenland and within the Canadian Arctic, to their winter breeding grounds in pack-ice regions off the eastern coasts of Newfoundland and within the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
Females congregate in large whelping herds on the pack-ice in the breeding grounds by late February or early March and give birth to their pups. New born pups are typically about 85 cm (~ 33”) in length and weigh about 11 kg (~ 24 lbs). The pups feed profusely on their mothers’ rich milk for about two weeks, at which time the mothers abandon their pups. Upon weaning the pups have more than tripled their weight to about 35 kg (~ 77 lbs). The pups remain in the whelping patches until the ice begins to melt in April or early May, at which time they start to travel north towards summer feeding grounds.
A mating period occurs immediately after the females have weaned their pups. Females reach sexual maturity at 4-6 years of age, while males become sexually mature at 7-8 years of age. The seals mate promiscuously without any long-term pair bonding. The gestation period is approximately 11.5 months.
After breeding, the adults gather with immature seals to molt (usually starting in early April). The molting period lasts about four weeks (until late April or early May), at which time the ice begins to melt and the seals begin to migrate back to their summer feeding grounds.
Harp seals have a life span of about 30 years.
Harp seals are found distributed throughout the arctic and sub-arctic waters of the North Atlantic Ocean from Newfoundland and the Canadian Arctic to northern Russia. There are three distinct harp seal breeding populations: the White Sea (or Barents Sea) population, the West Ice (Jan Mayen Island) population, and the Northwest Atlantic population which breeds off the coasts of Newfoundland (the Front herd) in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (the Gulf herd). Harp seals migrate annually from these winter breeding grounds to northern feeding grounds off of eastern Greenland, northern Iceland and northern Norway (West Ice and White Sea populations) and the Canadian Arctic and waters off of western Greenland (Northwest Atlantic population). Harp seals of the Northwest Atlantic population are occasionally observed farther south than the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and sightings have been reported as far south as Virginia, USA, while vagrant harp seals of the eastern Atlantic populations have been observed in Scotland, Germany and France.
Harp seals are opportunistic predators feeding primarily on pelagic fish such as polar and artic cod at their summer feeding grounds, and capelin and herring while migrating in the spring and fall winter. They are also known to forage on ground fish (e.g., redfish, cod, halibut) and invertebrates (e.g., krill, shrimp).
Harp seals are gregarious and pagophilic (or “ice-loving”) animals that gather annually on pack-ice in large, dense herds consisting of thousands of animals to give birth to their pups, mate and molt. The seals may also feed and travel together in large groups during their extensive seasonal migrations. Harp seals are very vocal animals and make a variety of underwater calls in conjunction with herd formation at the breeding grounds and courtship behavior.
The total world population size of harp seals may be as many as 9.5 million animals, with the largest population being the Northwest Atlantic population. The most recent population estimates made from aerial surveys of pup production (pup counts) are as follows:
- Northwest Atlantic population = 4.6 - 7.2 million seals
- White Sea/Barents Sea population = 1.5 - 2 million seals
- West Ice/Jan Mayen Island population = ~ 300,000 seals
Harp seals are the target of large commercial hunts for oil and fur in Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. The Canadian harp seal hunt occurs each year at the breeding grounds off of Newfoundland and in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The total number of harp seal kills reported for the Northwest Atlantic population (including both the Canadian seal hunt, the Greenland hunt and fisheries by-catch) averaged 468,000 seals/year from 1996-2004.
Due to their large numbers harp seals are not considered endangered or threatened in Canada and are not listed by either COSEWIC or SARA. At the world conservation status level, they are listed as a low-risk species of least concern by the IUCN.
DFO (2005) Stock assessment of Northwest Atlantic harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus). DFO Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat Science Advisory Report. 2005/07.
DFO (2006) The harp seal. Retrieved February 27, 2007 from Underwater World. Website: http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/zone/underwater_sous-marin/hseal/seal-phoque_e.htm.
Pagophilus groenlandicus, Harp Seal. Retrieved February 27, 2007 from MarineBio.org. Website: http://marinebio.org/species.asp?id=302.
Reeves, R.R., Stewart, B.S., Clapham, P.J. & Powell, J.A. (2002) National Audubon Society guide to marine mammals of the world. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York, NY.
Seal Specialist Group (1996). Pagophilus groenlandicus. Retrieved February 27, 2007 from 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Website: http://www.iucnredlist.org/search/details.php/41671/summ.
Photo’s taken by Dr. J. Terhune.