Canada’s Seal Harvest

(Disponible en français : La chasse au phoque au Canada)

In Canada, the seal harvest is managed by the federal government as a fishery and not, as is commonly believed, by provincial/territorial governments as a hunting activity.

The Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard is granted this authority through legislation, including the Fisheries Act, the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) and the Oceans Act, as well as the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Additionally, the Commercial Fisheries Licensing Policy for Eastern Canada (1996), created under the authority of the Fisheries Act, governs the issuance of sealing licences.

This fishery is also managed using the 2011-2015 Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for Atlantic Seals (also known as an IFMP) as a guidance document. The IFMP guides the harvest of all six seal species found off Canada’s Atlantic coast: harp, grey, hooded, harbour, ringed and bearded, although Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) notes that the last two typically reside in Arctic waters.

As with other commercial fisheries in Canada, the seal hunt is divided into management areas. Each is further subdivided into Sealing Areas (Figure 1) as follows:

  • The Arctic region: includes the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut (Sealing Areas 1–3).
  • The Front: includes Newfoundland and Labrador (Sealing Areas 4–11 and 33).
  • The Gulf of St. Lawrence: covers Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia (Sealing Areas 13–32).

Figure 1 – Sealing Areas of CanadaMap of Canada illustrating the boundaries for each of the 33 sealing areas that appear in Schedule III, Parts I to VI of the Marine Mammal Regulations Act.

Source: Map prepared by Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2017, using data from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).  Boundary Lines.  In:  Atlas of Canada National Scale Data 1:5,000,000 Series. Ottawa: NRCan, 2013; Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).  Boundary Polygons.  In: Atlas of Canada National Scale Data 1:5,000,000 Series. Ottawa: NRCan, 2013; Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).  Boundary PolygonsIn: Atlas of Canada National Scale Data 1:1,000,000 Series. Ottawa: NRCan, 2014; Marine Mammal Regulations, SOR/93-56; Fishing Zones of Canada (Zones 4 and 5) Order, CRC, c 1548.  The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS, version 10.3.1. Contains information licensed under Open Government Licence – Canada.

Harvest seasons

Of the six species, DFO explains that “harp seals account for almost all the seals harvested commercially in Canada, with only a small harvest of grey and hooded seals.” There are no commercial fisheries for harbour, ringed and bearded seals in Canada, although subsistence harvests are in effect for all three species.

Pursuant to the MMRs, the commercial harvest season for harp and hooded seals (in Sealing Areas 4 to 33) is from 15 November to 14 June. The season is closed from 15 February to 15 March to allow the seals to whelp and nurse their pups.

Also pursuant to the MMRs, the commercial harvest season for grey seals (in Sealing Areas 4 to 33) is 1 March to 31 December. It should be noted that harvest seasons can be subject to change at any time through a Variation Order issued by DFO.

Subsistence harvests – for those residing north of the 53°N latitude in Labrador and in the Arctic – can occur year-round. There is one exception, the ringed seal subsistence harvest in Labrador, which, pursuant to the MMRs, is only permitted from 25 April to 30 November. DFO defines a subsistence fishery as one “that fills a need for food purposes. In Canada, (it should) not to be confused with the First Nations fishery, which is restricted to First Nations’ members.”

Seal harvests for food, social and ceremonial purposes, also known as an FSC fishery, can also occur year-round, without exception. This is one conducted by an Aboriginal group that has a right to fish for these purposes.

Socio-economic importance and market barriers

According to DFO, the Atlantic seal hunt can be traced “as far back as the early Dorset culture, 3,000 years ago” by European and Canadian fleets alike. The Canadian Sealers Association confirms that “[f]or thousands of years, seals have provided food, clothing and heat for people living in challenging northern conditions.” They continue to do so for many Indigenous peoples and northern communities.

In past years, the economic importance of the sealing industry was significant, with exports of seal-derived products fetching $17.9 million in 2006. Over the last decade, however, Canada has experienced a significant decline in seal landings and in seal-derived product exports (see Figure 2 for the trend of seal product export values).

Figure 2 – Seal Product Export Values, 2004–2016

Source: Figure prepared by the author using data obtained from personal communications with Legislation and Parliamentary Affairs, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 9 August 2016 and 21 July 2017.

Reasons for the decline include:

  • a sharp drop in pelt prices from a high of $100 per pelt, to the more typical $27 per pelt;
  • anti-sealing campaigns that criticized the humaneness of seal harvesting practices; and
  • bans on the import of seal-derived products, such as the one instituted by the European Union in 2009, the exception being those seal products derived from traditional hunts by Indigenous communities.

Rebuilding the market

To meet the export market requirements set by the EU and help re-develop export markets, the Government of Canada established the Certification and Market Access Program for Seals (CMAPS) in 2015. This is a five-year program that committed $5.7 million through to 2019-20.

The goal of CMAPS was to “fund the development of certification and tracking systems so that seal products harvested by Indigenous communities can be certified to be sold in the European Union (EU) […] and it will also support the broader commercial seal industry to access world markets.”

In addition, on 16 May 2017, Bill S-208, An Act respecting National Seal Products Day, received Royal Assent, marking May 20th as National Seal Products Day in Canada. Among other things, Bill S-208 seeks to recognize “the importance of the seal hunt for Canada’s Indigenous peoples, coastal communities and entire population.”

The Government of Nunavut has stated that whatever the state or profitability of the commercial seal harvest, traditional seal hunting, which is “central to the cultural fabric of Inuit communities” will continue.

Further reading

Lafrance, Daniele. Canada’s Seal Harvest, Publication No. 2017-18-E, Background Paper, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, 9 August 2017.

Additional resources

DFO, 2011-2015 Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for Atlantic Seals, 16 March 2011.

Author: Daniele Lafrance, Library of Parliament

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