Skip to Page Content
banner top art gif
office title gif
NOAA Fisheries
Office of Protected Resources
Acropora palmata thicket on Mona Island, Puerto Rico. Andy Bruckner, 1996Coho salmon painting, Canadian Dept of Fisheries and OceansMonk seal, C.E. BowlbyHumpback whale, Dr. Lou Herman
banner art gif
Species
Marine Mammals
Cetaceans
Pinnipeds
Marine Turtles
Marine & Anadromous Fish
Marine Invertebrates & Plants
Species of Concern
Threatened & Endangered Species
Critical Habitat Maps
  Contact OPR
Glossary
OPR Site Map

inner curve gif

Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina)

Status | Taxonomy | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution |
Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview |
Key Documents | More Info

  Harbor Seal in the water
Harbor Seal
(Phoca vitulina)
Photo: NOAA
 

 

 

Status
ESA Candidate Species - harbor seals in Iliamna Lake (AK)
MMPA - Harbor seals, like all marine mammals, are protected under the MMPA.

Taxonomy
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Phocidae
Genus: Phoca
Species: vitulina

Harbor seals in Iliamna Lake, Alaska, are part of the Pacific harbor seal (Phoca vitulina richardii) subspecies.

Species Description
Weight: about 245 pounds (110 kg)
Length: about 6 feet (~2 m)
Appearance:  generally blue-gray back with light and dark speckling; they lack external ear flaps and have short forelimbs
Lifespan: unknown
Diet: mainly fish, shellfish, and crustaceans
Behavior: they tend to haul out on land and rest with head and flippers elevated, in a banana-like fashion

Harbor seals are part of the "true seal" family, Phocidae. True seals lack external ear flaps and have short forelimbs that result in limited locomotion on land.

Male harbor seals are slightly larger than females, weigh up to 245 pounds (110 kg), and measure anywhere from about 5.6-6.3 feet (1.7-1.9 m) in length. Harbor seals in Alaska and the Pacific Ocean are generally larger than those found in the Atlantic Ocean. Harbor seals' color varies but they often have a blue-gray back with light and dark speckling. They have short, concave, dog-like snouts, and they tend haul out on land and rest with head and flippers elevated, in a banana like fashion.

Harbor seals eat a variety of prey consisting mainly of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans. Researchers have found that seals complete both shallow and deep dives during hunting depending on the availability of prey (Tollit et al. 1997).

Harbor seals mate at sea and females give birth during the spring and summer; although, the pupping season varies with latitude. Pups are nursed for an average of 24 days and are ready to swim minutes after being born.

Habitat
Harbor seals live in temperate coastal habitats and use rocks, reefs, beach, and drifting glacial ice as haul out and pupping sites. Harbor seals haul out on land for rest, thermal regulation, social interaction, and to give birth. Seals also haul out to avoid predators. Studies have shown that seals in groups spend less time scanning for predators than those that haul out alone.

 
harbor seal range map
Harbor Seal Range Map
(click for larger view PDF)


Distribution
Harbor seals are generally non-migratory and occur on both the U.S east and west coasts. On the east coast, harbor seals are found from the Canadian Arctic to New York and occasionally in the Carolinas. On the west coast, harbor seals are found in the coastal and estuarine waters from British Columbia, Canada to Baja, California. They are found further west through the Gulf of Alaska and in the Bering Sea.

Population Trends
Harbor seal stocks have experienced different population trends over the past 30 years. Along the west coast, stocks are stable and some are even increasing. In New England, the population is also increasing. Most stocks in Alaska are also stable or slightly increasing, but the Gulf of Alaska stock is small compared to its abundance in the 1970s and 1980s and may be continuing to decline. More information on the populations of harbor seal stocks is available in our stock assessment reports.

Threats

  • incidental capture in fishing gear, including
    • gillnets
    • trawls
    • purse seines
    • weirs
  • ship strikes
  • oil spill exposure
  • chemical contaminants
  • power plant entrainment
  • harassment by humans while hauled out on land
 
harbor seal video
Video: Harbor seal monitoring in Puget Sound

Credit: NOAA


Conservation Efforts
The MMPA's moratorium on taking marine mammals has limited hunting of harbor seals to Alaska Natives for subsistence and handicraft purposes. Therefore, bounty hunting of harbor seals and other marine mammals no longer occurs.

In 2001, a co-management agreement [pdf] was signed between NMFS and the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission to promote the health of harbor seals in order to

  • protect the culture of the natives
  • promote scientific research to facilitate management decisions
  • identify management conflicts
  • provide information to the public to promote sustainable use, management, and conservation

In an effort to educate the public about proper wildlife viewing, NMFS and our collaborators created regional guidelines for seal watching.

Regulatory Overview
All marine mammals, including harbor seals, are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 as amended.

Key Documents
(All documents are in PDF format.)

Title Federal Register Date

Positive 90-day finding on petition to list harbor seals in Iliamna Lake, Alaska, under the ESA

78 FR 29098 05/17/2013
Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to Protect Glacially-associated Harbor Seal Habitats in Alaska 78 FR 15669 03/12/2013
Co-Management Action Plan n/a 01/2001
Stock Assessment Reports n/a various

More Information

References:

  • Hoover, A.A. 1988. Harbor seal Phoca vitulina. In: Selected Marine Mammals of Alaska: Species Accounts with Research and Management Recommendations (J.W. Lentfer, ed), pp. 125-157. Marine Mammal Commission, Washington, DC.
  • Tollit, DJ., S.PR. Greenstreet, and P.M. Thompson. 1997. Prey Selection by harbor seals, Phoca vitulina, in relation to variation in prey abundance. Canadian Journal of Zoology 75, 1508-1518.

Updated: October 24, 2013

NOAA logo Department of Commerce logo