DFO puts harp seals in jeopardy, study finds

Thursday, 16 February, 2006
Ottawa, Canada
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ management approach for harp seals risks depleting the population by more than 70 percent within the next 15 years, a scientific study has found.
Scientists with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Russell Leaper and Justin Matthews, conducted the study, entitled An Investigation of the effects of uncertainty on Canadian harp seal management. The authors assessed the federal government’s methods for determining population size and trends for Northwest Atlantic harp seals, as well as their approach for setting hunting quotas.

“The risk to the seal population is alarmingly high. The study demonstrates that the government may not know that the seal population is at a critical level until it is too late for anything but drastic action. That means they would continue to set high quotas for hunting when the seal population is in serious decline,” said Mr. Leaper.

“As we’ve seen before with cod, drastic changes will be difficult to implement and politically damaging. This is not good management, either for conservation or the sealing industry.”

The main reason for alarm, explains Mr. Matthews, is the plan does not adequately address the uncertainty we face today.  In addition to the uncertainty in the available data, there is the added environmental uncertainty – things like climate change and the variation is food supply. 

Over the past three years, more than one million seals have been killed during the annual seal hunt off Canada’s east coast. The authors insist that the annual quota must be drastically reduced to limit the risk of depleting the population. 

The DFO is expected to release its new management plan for harp seals in the next two weeks, including hunting quotas. IFAW is calling on the federal government to abandon its current management model in favour of a more cautious approach.

IFAW is also urging DFO to cancel this year’s hunt if poor ice conditions continue, as an example of cautious, responsible management.


Authors of An Investigation of the effects of uncertainty on Canadian harp seal management:

Russell Leaper has been studying marine mammals since 1988. His research has focused on marine mammal population modelling and assessment, including acoustic survey techniques and developing ways of measuring range to whales during sighting surveys. Russell is a member of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, has a degree in mathematics from Oxford University and an MSc in Marine Resource Development and Protection from Heriot-Watt University. He has written scientific papers, popular articles, and contributions to reference books on marine mammals.

Justin Matthews has been associated with the IFAW team since 1995, working initially on a collaborative contract with Oxford University, and from 1999 as a full-time researcher. He has a Masters of Science in mathematical biology, and has written or co-authored several papers on the sounds made by marine mammals, and on the results of population surveys using acoustics or photo-identification. Justin works primarily on survey design, data collection methodology and statistical analysis of data.

To contact the authors, please call:  Ingrid Nielsen (613) 241-3982 ext. 225  inielsen@ifaw.org

Summary from An Investigation of the effects of uncertainty on Canadian harp seal management

This study investigates the behaviour of the Canadian government's current management procedures for harp seals. These procedures are described by Fisheries and Oceans Canada as using both the Precautionary Approach and Objective Based Fisheries Management. Employing a similar underlying population modelling approach, we simulated the effects of uncertainty involving bias in estimates of human induced mortality, natural mortality and pup production estimates. These factors may combine such that the impact on the population of a certain level of take is much greater than would be predicted from assessments derived from the government model. Nevertheless, any precautionary management regime would be expected to be robust to reasonable levels of uncertainty. Our results indicate, however, that for the range of annual total allowable catches (TAC) considered and set for Canadian commercial catches of harp seals (250,000 – 350,000) there may be circumstances under which the government's management procedures fail to meet their own conservation objectives. Under some of the scenarios examined it appears the current management strategy, although not fully specified, is likely to maintain a high TAC despite a declining population. In particular, once a high TAC has been set, the assessments are unlikely to provide the necessary evidence that the TAC should be reduced until the population is at a very low level. Hence the probabilities that the population may be depleted below the ‘minimum’ (N50) and ‘critical’ (N30) reference points are alarmingly high. In addition, when the TAC is reduced, the required cuts are likely to be drastic. Our results indicate that the Canadian government's approach to the management of harp seals results in a high level of risk that may, for example, not adequately account for changes in mortality related to poor ice conditions, such as are currently anticipated for spring 2006. There is a need for a fully specified management procedure based on risk analysis to be developed and tested. However, in the interim, setting TACs within limits calculated from a well-established precautionary procedure, such as Potential Biological Removal, would reduce the risks considerably.

Post a comment

Press Contact

Chris Cutter (IFAW, Headquarters)
Contact phone:
Contact email:


Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Sheryl Fink, Campaign Director, Canadian Wildlife
Campaign Director, Canadian Wildlife
Sonja Van Tichelen, Vice President of International Operations
Vice President of International Operations