Harp seal catch (Phoca groenlandica)

A large number of harp seals laying on small ice floes.
Photo: Andrea Taurisano / Norwegian Polar Institute

Harp seals are now hunted in two areas: the West Ice (the Greenland Sea near Jan Mayen) and the East Ice (the southeastern part of the Barents Sea and the White Sea). Hunting also took place off Newfoundland until 1982. Hunting is today greatly reduced due to actions against seal hunting, which have had a very negative impact on the markets.

What is being monitored?

Harp seal catch

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The figure shows the number of animals landed from the West Ice. Harp seals were far too heavily harvested in the West Ice during the first 2 decades after the Second World War. The stock therefore declined in size right up to the end of the 1960s, when regulation of the hunting was introduced. This, combined with a declining hunting effort during the 1970s, had a positive effect on the stock, which immediately began to grow.

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The figure shows the number of animals landed from the the East Ice. Harp seals were far too heavily harvested in the East Ice during the first 2 decades after the Second World War. The stock therefore declined in size right up to the end of the 1960s, when regulation of the hunting was introduced. This, combined with a declining hunting effort during the 1970s, had a positive effect on the stock. After the turn of the millennium pup production has again dropped, and the hunting effort has been low since 2009. No hunting took place in the area in 2015 and only 28 animals were caught in 2016.

Status and trend

The catch figures are divided into 2 main groups:

  1. Pups of the year
  2. Older animals (1+)

Animals taken for research purposes are included.

Harp seals were far too heavily harvested both in the West and the East Ice during the first 2 decades after the Second World War. The stock therefore declined in size right up to the end of the 1960s, when regulation of the hunting was introduced. This, combined with a declining hunting effort during the 1970s, had a positive effect on the stock, which immediately began to grow.

The harp seal stock in the West Ice has increased steadily since the 1960s. The catch has been relatively small and irregular since the 1980s. ICES has calculated that sustainable catches for 2012 and the coming years are 16,737 one-year-old and older animals, or an equivalent number of pups (where 2 pups approximately equates with one 1+ seal).

Data on the total catch for the East Ice are available only for the period 1946-1952. By the turn of the millennium, the harp seal stock in the East Ice numbered just over  two million individuals. Aerial censuses performed by the Russians since 2003, however, indicate a substantial reduction in the stock. There were no more than approximately 1.3 million individuals in 2013. Recommended quotas in the East Ice are therefore dramatically lower than the years before the stock was reduced. In the period from 2009 through 2017 there was no commercial catch in the East Ice. However, in 2018 organized commercial catch was carried out again with one boat. ICES has calculated that sustainable catches for 2012 and the coming years are 10 090 one-year-old and older animals, or an equivalent number of pups (where 2 pups approximately equates with one 1+ seal).

Causal factors

Catch quotas are set every other year based on calculations of the total stock and what are referred to as sustainable catches, which are the catch volume that is assumed will stabilize the stock. The ICES Advisory Committee for Fishery Management (ACFM) regards the catch in both the West Ice and the East Ice as being within safe biological limits.

Consequences

Harp seals are fish eaters, and the total consumption of fish by the entire population can be estimated from knowledge of feeding habits (from dedicated ship surveys and harvest material), and the size and demography of the population.

It has been estimated that the East Ice population annually consumes approx. 3.5 mill. tonnes of various prey items in the Barents Sea. As this is the most abundant pelagic seal species in the North Atlantic it is important to monitor it. It represents a large biomass, and changes in the population will potentially have a large impact on the rest of the ecosystem.

About the monitoring

The harp seal population as a whole is being monitored as hunting could have an impact on it and because the species is ice-dependent and will be affected by climate change. The catch level is a vital parameter in population models of harp seals in the East and West Ice.

Places and areas

Relations to other monitoring

Monitoring programme
International environmental agreements
Voluntary international cooperation
Related monitoring