The landsmen hunt involves smaller boats, averaging 18-23 feet, and takes place close to land, usually no more than 15 miles offshore, with boats returning to shore each night. The offshore hunt involves vessels of 35-65 feet in length, with most being towards the upper end of this range. Offshore sealers often follow seal herds and may travel 100 miles or more. Hunting trips take several days, or even up to two weeks.
There are two major areas for commercial sealing: an area off Newfoundland known as the Front, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Although hunters on the Front receive 70% of each year's annual harp seal quota, monitoring by private groups focuses on the St. Lawrence hunt due to the greater ease of access.
Four species of seal are harvested: harp, hooded, grey and ringed. By far the bulk of the harvest comprises harp seals, with a quota from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2007 of 270,000. Annual quotas for hooded and grey seals are rarely more than 10,000.
An additional 10,000 animals are allocated for hunting by aboriginal peoples.
Adult seals cannot be harvested when they are in breeding or birthing grounds, and younger seals must be weaned, self-reliant and independent.
Harp seal hunt
Commercial hunting of harp seals is permitted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and on the Front from Nov. 15 to May 15. However, the majority of animals are taken in late March in the Gulf, and in the first two weeks of April on the Front.
The commercial hunting of harp seal pups under 2-3 weeks, known as whitecoats, has been illegal since 1987, while the Marine Mammal Regulations prohibit the trade, sale or barter of the fur of these pups.
The total quota for harp seals is split between two areas: 70% for the Front and 30% for the St. Lawrence Gulf. In 2007, the quota was set at 270,000, down from 325,000 in 2006. From 2003 to 2005, a three-year quota of 975,000 was set.
Quotas are not always met, however. In 2000, for example, just 92,000 seals were taken. Conversely, sometimes sealers are allowed to exceed their quotas.
Hooded seal hunt
As with harp seal whitecoats, the hunting of hooded seal pups, known as bluebacks, has been illegal since 1987, while the Marine Mammal Regulations prohibit the trade, sale or barter of the fur of these pups.
The annual quota for hooded seals is in the region of 10,000.
Grey seal hunt
The grey seal hunt is only a small part of the overall Canadian hunt, but grey seals are an issue for fishermen because they live, and eat, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence all year round. The hunt is welcomed by lobster fishermen, whose gear grey seals frequently damage. A study by the Department of Fisheries of Prince Edward Island in 2001 estimated the damage to lobster gear in one year in that province alone at C$6.2 million.
The quota in 2007 was set at 2,100, shared by sealers from Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Magdalen Islands. The population of grey seals in eastern Canada is estimated at 300,000, up from about 25,000 in the 1970s.
Ringed seal hunt
An estimated 30,000 ringed seals are harvested annually in Nunavut Territory, from a population of between 1.5 and 3 million. This catch is far smaller than historical levels, and considered well within the sustainable yield of the population. Populations and harvest levels are monitored by the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board.
The harvest is practiced on a small-scale, subsistence basis, with the main purpose being to provide food. The skins are used first to meet home needs, such as for clothing as well as arts and crafts, while surplus skins may be sold.