Harp Seal

From Academic Kids

Harp Seal
Scientific classification
Kingdom:Animalia
Phylum:Chordata
Class:Mammalia
Order:Carnivora
Family:Phocidae
Genus:Phoca
Species:P. groenlandica
Binomial name
Phoca groenlandica
Erxleben, 1777

The Harp Seal (Phoca groenlandica, also named Pagophilus groenlandicus), is a marine mammal of the family Phocidae that is found in the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. They are separated into three populations that breed in different locations: the White Sea, the West Ice and the Northwest populations, of which the Northwest Atlantic population near Newfoundland, Canada is the largest. All three populations are hunted, mainly by Canada, Norway, Russia and Greenland. The most abundant Northwest population has since 1970 nearly tripled in size to 5.2 million according to a peer-reviewed survey in 1999. It is estimated that over two thirds of the harp seal population were killed between 1950 and 1970, which would mean the current population has merely recovered to the previous level from 1950, which was a heavily hunted population, considered smaller than without exploitation.

Harp seals eat a wide variety of fish and other sea creatures, and their diet seems to vary during different stages of life. Since reporting of the stomach contents of killed seals began in 1941, at least 67 species of fish and 70 species of invertebrates have been found to be part of the harp seal's diet. In the early 1990s many Canadian fishermen and politicians blamed harp seals for the dramatic collapse of the North-West Atlantic cod populations. Although harp seals do eat cod, they also eat many species of fish and squid that prey on cod. In 1994, two Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists (Hutchings and Myers) concluded "that the collapse of northern cod can be attributed solely to overexploitation", blaming unsustainable overfishing by Canada for the cod population collapse.

Each year, mature females (5-6 years old) give birth to a single pup, typically in late February. Pups weigh approximately 10kg and are 80-85cm long. Immediately after giving birth, the mother seal smells her offspring, and from that point on will only ever feed her own pup, who's scent she remembers. Harp seal milk contains up to 50% fat, so pups gain over 2kg per day when nursing, which lasts roughly 12 days. During this time the mother does not eat, and will lose up to 3kg per day of body weight. Weaning is very abrupt, the mother simply leaves, and never comes back. The stranded pup will cry at first, and then become very sedentary to conserve body fat. Pups are unable to swim or find food until they are about 25 days old, leaving them very vulnerable to polar bears and humans during this time.

As mother harp seals wean their young, mature males (6-7 years old) roam around breeding with the females promiscuously. Courtship begins on the ice, however the actual mating takes place in the water. Harp seals have delayed implantation, meaning the fertilized egg becomes an embryo, but does not implant in the uterus right away. The embryo will float around for about three and a half months before implanting and beginning to grow. This allows all the females to give birth within a very small time window each year, when the ice pack is available for giving birth and raising their young.

Adult harp seals grow to 1.7m long, can weigh over 130kg, and live up to 35 years. Polar bears, sharks, killer whales, and in some areas Walruses are harp seals natural predators. Due in part to the period of helplessness as infants, and to the long time it takes them to become proficient swimmers, as many as 30% of harp seal pups don't survive their first year. Also, although it is not legal to catch seals using nets, thousands of seals are inadvertently killed in commercial fishing nets every year.

Harvest

Harp seals have been hunted for many years as a source of food, oil and fur. Seal meat is no longer a viable market, and depending on the country carcasses are either left to rot on the ice, or hunters are required to land the meat, adding to the expense of the hunt. Whitecoat (unweaned infant) harp seals were previously a main focus of the seal hunt, as their white fur was highly valued in Europe. Due to public pressure, the European Union banned the importation of whitecoat pelts in 1983. With nowhere to sell the whitecoat pelts to, Canada banned the large-vessel commercial whitecoat hunt in 1987. Whitecoats may still be legally hunted in Canada for personal use as long as you have a permit.

There is still a great deal of public pressure to stop the Canadian seal hunt, which kills more seals annually than all the other seal hunting countries combined. Many organizations, including the United States Humane Society have called for a boycott of Canadian seafood products. The Canadian, Russian and Norwegian governments all subsidise their respective seal hunts, and through corporate welfare directed at the Norwegian company GC Rieber that purchases about 70% of Canadian seal pelts, Norway also indirectly subsidises the Canadian hunt.

The Canadian government has changed their publicly stated reasoning for the hunt over the years, but the continued subsidies indicate that the main purpose of the hunt is to lower the seal population, in an attempt to speed up the recover of cod stocks. Despite scientists warnings that culling the population of harp seals will not help the cod population, many politicians see the hunt as a way to win favour in areas where fishing is a major industry. In 1998 John Efford, the Newfoundland Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture, told his legislature "I would like to see the 6 million seals, or whatever number is out there, killed or sold, or destroyed or burned. I do not care what happens to them... the more they kill the better I will love it.".

Despite government assurances that the hunt is conducted humanely, every year animal welfare groups film acts of terrible cruelty, including seals being dragged around by hakapiks (large clubs with hooks), skinned or having their penises cut off for the asian aphrodisiac market, all while still alive. In 2001, an independant report by a team of veterinarians who studied the Canadian hunt, and the carcasses left on the ice concluded that government regulations regarding humane killing were not being enforced, and that 42% of the animals they inspected had likely been skinned alive, while fully conscious.

Quotas for seal hunts are set by individual governments, based on recommendations by ICES. Legally, the seals that are hunted commercially must be weaned, however they do not have to be old enough to swim or find food. It is estimated that 95% of the seals killed over the past five years have been harp seal pups between 12 days and 12 weeks of age. The Canadian government set a three year quota, including provision for transfer between years at the start of the three year period of 2003-2005. During this period the quota is set at 975,000 animals, with a maximum kill of 350,000 per year. There are however no penalties for exceeding quotas, and in 2002, the Canadian government allowed sealers to exceed the quota by more than 37,000 animals, and in 2004, the 350,000 limit was exceeded by nearly 16,000.

ICES has publicly stated that their current recommendations allow for sustainable yearly hunts without damaging the harp seal population. Many scientists agree with this assessment, and feel that the seal population is being managed safely. However many scientists disagree, pointing out that we do not have accurate records of seal populations from before we started large scale commercial hunting, and so we have no way to know how large the population should really be, and that such claims about sustainability were made about the cod populations that Canadian overfishing demolished.

External links

fr:Pagophilus groenlandicus nl:Zadelrob fi:Grönlanninhylje sv:Grönlandssäl

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