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, caught as pups of the year and adults (animals one year of age or older). Harp seals were far too heavily harvested in the West Ice during the first 2 decades after the Second World War, but after 1990 the harvest level has been low. Both Norway and the Soviet Republic/Russia caught harp seals in the West Ice up till 1994. After 1994 Norway has been the only country hunting seals in the West Ice, and most years less than 10 000 animals have been caught.

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The figure shows the number of animals landed from the the East Ice, caught as pups of the year and adults (animals one year of age or older). Total catch are the only available numbers from the East Ice from the years 1946-1952. Harp seals were far too heavily harvested in the East Ice during the first 2 decades after the Second World War, but after 1990 the number of caught seals has been low. Hunting in the East Ice has also traditionally been carried out by both Norway and the Soviet Republic/Russia. Prior to 2003 the catch level was between 35 000 and 45 000 animals, after which there was a marked decrease in catch volume. Since 2009 there has been no Russian seal hunt activity in the East Ice. Similarly, there were no Norwegian hunt in the period 2009-2017, but one vessel participated in the catch in 2018.

Status and trend

The catch figures are divided into two main groups:

  1. Pups of the year
  2. Older animals/adults (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 two decades after the Second World War. The stocks therefore declined in size right up to the end of the 1960s, when regulations on 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 seems to have increased towards the early 2000s, whereafter it has stabilized or marginally decreased. The stock in the East Ice increased a little from the late 1960s, but there has been a declining trend since the early 1980s. After a period with an apparent stable pup production from late 1990s, the production of pups has decreased with almost 50% from 2003-2005, whereafter it has been at a low, but relatively stable, level prior to the last survey in 2013.

Since 1990 the catch levels have been low in both areas. Prior to 1994, both Norway and the Soviet Republic/Russia were hunting in the West Ice. After 1990 Norway has been the only nation hunting there, and most years less than 10 000 animals have been caught. Hunting in the East Ice has also traditionally been carried out by both Norway and the Soviet Republic/Russia. Prior to 2003 the catch level was between 35 000 and 45 000 animals, after which there was a marked decrease in catch volume. Since 2009 there has been no Russian seal hunt activity in the East Ice. Similarly, there were no Norwegian hunt in the period 2009-2017, but one vessel participated in the catch in 2018.

The management advice issued by ICES normally involves an annual catch that is likely to stabilize the stock over a 15-year period. Based on uncertainties related to the decrease in pup production, ICES has recommended that the catch levels is based on the most conservative calculations in both areas. The Joint Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission has concluded to follow advice from ICES for the 2020 hunting season. In the West Ice the recommended quota for 2020 is 11 548 animals, and in the East Ice the recommended quota is 21 172 animals. Russia denounced their future quotas in the West Ice in 2000. After 2000 these quotas have thus been allocated to Norwegian sealers. In the East Ice the Joint Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission and Norway agreed that Norwegian sealers may hunt 7 000 adult seals of the total quota for 2020.

Causal factors

Catch quotas are set every other year based on calculations of the total stock and catch options. The quotas are set conservatively with the goal to stabilize the stock on a set level over a 15-year period. The ICES Advisory Committee for Fishery Management (ACOM) regards the catch in both the West Ice and the East Ice as being within safe biological limits.

Consequences

Harp seals feed on crustaceans and fish, 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. Population abundance assessments are based on counts of the pup production every 5. year. Estimates of pup production, information on female fertiliyy, and catch levels are all vital parameters 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