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.