Harp seal and its state of conservation



by LORENZO CIOTTI

Harp seal and its state of conservation

The Harp seal lives in the Arctic seas, where it stays during the summer, spending little time on land. Between February and March it heads for the coasts of southern Greenland, northern Scandinavia and northern Asia, where the births take place.

Outside the breeding season, it can travel 4,000 km in open water. Thus it can appear in places where it does not usually live, in Great Britain, for example, 31 saddled seals have been found from 1800 to 1988. Harp seal is considered Least Endangered and is commercially hunted for fur in Canada, Norway, Russia and Greenland.

In Canada, hunting is permitted from November 15 to May 15 according to government-set quotas, which dictate how many animals can be killed. Puppy hunting has been banned since 1987, when whitecoat fur was outlawed, but pups can be killed after their first molt.

A subsistence hunt is permitted for the Inuit, who kill seals for food and to a lesser extent, for commercial purposes. Harp seal is a gregarious species and lives in large groups. Between February and March it heads to one of the three breeding areas mentioned above.

During this period, females fight for a piece of territory where the birth will take place, while males fight for the right to mate. Courtship may begin on ice, but mating usually occurs in water. He can hold his breath for up to half an hour.

The maximum life span is about 30 years. It feeds on fish, such as capelin, herring, polar cod, Arctic cod, Atlantic cod, mackerel, and squid and crustaceans. This phocid measures up to 1.8-2 meters, weighing 140-190 kg; the male is larger than the female.

It has a brownish-grey livery with a dark gray or black head. On the back, the adults have a large dark patch in the shape of a harp, from which the Italian name and the English harp seal derive. Smaller spots are present on the neck and sides.

Puppies are yellow-white at birth, then turn white and remain so for 12 days. In this phase, they are called whitecoat in English, to underline the white coat. Between the thirteenth day and the month of age, the white hair falls out in tufts showing the underlying fur, similar to that of the adults, dark stained but without the harp design, which appears after about 4 years.