Fact sheet on Norwegian coastal seals

October 2004

Fact sheet on Norwegian coastal seals

Updated October 2004

In June 2004, the Storting (the Norwegian parliament) amended the Norwegian fisheries legislation that lays down a general prohibition against fishing and hunting by foreign nationals in Norwegian territorial waters. The amendment permits foreign nationals to take part in hunting for coastal seals, just as they were already permitted to take part in sports fishing along the coast. The Storting has thus given hunting for coastal seals the same status as hunting for terrestrial mammals such as reindeer, red deer and moose.

Norway sets annual quotas for coastal seals, based on scientific advice. For the past two years, the quotas for both grey and common seals have been set somewhat higher than recommended by the scientists, as a means of reducing their populations to some extent. However, the numbers of seals killed have fallen short of the quotas, and the actual harvest has corresponded to the recommended quotas. This means that the numbers taken in practice have barely been equivalent to annual production, so that the population level has remained unchanged. The quota recommendations are based on minimum estimates of population size, since work is still being done on population models. Scientists have suggested that seal populations are probably larger than has previously been assumed. Thus, seal hunting has not so far reduced coastal seal populations

Unless seal populations are actively managed, they will regulate themselves. This means that mortality will rise when population density becomes too high. Seals in the Oslofjord and along the west coast of Sweden have been affected by several epidemics of phocine distemper virus (PDV). During the most recent outbreak, in 2002, large numbers of common seals died in this area. If the stocks are harvested regularly, such epidemics will be less common.

The two most important species of seals found along the Norwegian coast are the common seal (or harbour seal) and the grey seal. The common seal is a relatively stationary species that lives in the fjords, while the grey seal moves over larger areas and lives further out towards the open sea. Some of the grey seal colonies along the Norwegian coast are offshoots of the large populations in Britain and on the Kola Peninsula. At times, ringed seals and harp seals also migrate southwards along the Norwegian coast in search of food.

There are now colonies of coastal seals in areas of Norway where even a single seal used to be a rare sight. One result has been that fish move away from what used to be good fishing grounds. Coastal seals are also the final host of codworms, a nematode parasite that can infect coastal cod. The nematodes are clearly visible in fish fillets and although they do not pose a risk to people, they reduce the value of cod caught along the coast because they look unappetising. Seals can also prey heavily on salmon as they return to rivers to spawn, and can damage fish farms.

In a white paper on Norway’s policy on marine mammals published in spring 2004 (Report No. 27 (2003-2004) to the Storting), the Government stated its intention of regulating population growth in coastal seals to reduce damage to the fisheries and problems for local communities. The white paper also made it quite clear that Norway will maintain viable stocks of coastal seals on the basis of scientific advice.

Hunters from other countries have shown an interest in taking part in hunting for coastal seals in Norway. Rules are now being established for participation by foreign nationals in hunting for coastal seals, as a follow-up to the decision made by the Storting last summer. They are expected to apply from the hunting season in 2005. Hunters will be required to document general proficiency in hunting techniques, and will be required to hunt together with Norwegian hunters who have experience of hunting coastal seals and can provide guidance.

Different hunting seasons have been laid down for the two coastal seal species. In accordance with the principle that Norway follows for all game species, no hunting is permitted during the breeding season.