E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Phoca vitulina Linnaeus, 1758
Harbour Seal; Pacific Harbour Seal
Family: Phocidae
Species account authors: Peter Olesiuk and Michael Bigg
Extracted from Marine Mammals of British Columbia, Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Photo of species

© Les Leighton  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #127789)

E-Fauna BC Static Map
Distribution of Phoca vitulina in British Columbia
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Species Information

The Harbour Seal is a relatively small phocid. Males and females are similar in size and as adults attain a length of 1.2-1.6 m (4-5 ft.) and usually weigh 60-80 kg (130-180 lbs). Pups weigh about 10 kg (22 lbs) at birth and double their weight during a 4-6 week suckling period. Males live up to 20 years while the life span of females extends to 30 years. The pelage varies in colour from nearly black with light spots to nearly white with dark spots.


Population Information

The abundance of Harbour Seals has been monitored in Georgia Strait since the mid-1960's. Counts are usually conducted from small aircraft at times when most of the population is hauled out. In George Strait, about 90% of the animals haul out on low tides, on calm days, in the morning and toward the end of the pupping season. Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DF) surveys conducted under these conditions indicate that the Harbour Seal population in Georgia Strait grew from about 2,100 in 1973, to 12,500 in 1987, a rate of increase of 12.4% per year. Similar increases occurred in all other areas censused. For example, in the lower Skeena River counts increased from about 400 in 1977 to 1,250 in 1987. It was estimated that the population in B.C in 1987 was about 65,000 and might be approaching historical levels.
This increase in numbers represents the recovery of a depleted population, which in the late 1960's had probably been reduced to less than 15,000. A bounty offered by DFO for each seal killed between 1913 and 1964 reduced populations to about half historic levels. Harbour Seals were also intensively hunted for their pelts between 1962 and 1969. The population could not withstand this additional hunting and declined sharply during the mid 1960's.

Researchers at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo examined the impact of the growing harbour seal population on fisheries. Data were collected on diet, seasonal movements and abundance in conflict areas to establish the extent to which seals interfere with fishing activities and their impact on important fish stocks, such as salmon and herring.
One of the main topics studied was the amount of salmon consumed by Harbour Seals. The amount of food eaten by a seal depends on its size and sex, the season and the caloric contents of the prey. On average, Harbour Seals consume about 1.8 – 3.2 kg (4 – 7 lbs) of fish daily. At present not enough is known about the diet of harbour seals to accurately estimate the amoutn of salmon eaten. Preliminary findings indicate that in most localities, Harbour Seals prey mainly on a wide variety of small fishes that occur in shallow water around reefs. These include sculpins, small flatfishes and rockfishes, greenlings, smelts and perches. During winter their diet consists mainly of hake and, to a lesser degree, herring. However, salmon may constitute an important part of the diet in some rivers and estuaries while salmon are spawning.
Behaviour and Biology

These seals are typically seen in small groups resting on tidal reefs, boulders, and sandbars, but they can sleep underwater on the ocean bottom if no suitable haulout site is available. The population is traditional in the particular sites utilized as haulouts. There is little social organization in these colonies. Unlike many other pinnipeds, harbour seals do not congregate on rookeries but breed throughout most of their range. The birth season lasts about 2 months and varies from February – March to August – September, depending on location. In southern B.C., births occur in July – August and during May – June in northern B.C. Pups are usually born on tidal reefs or sandbars and begin to swim immediately. Although local movements associated with breeding and feeding may occur, harbour seals are otherwise non-migratory.


Harbour Seals occur in most temperate coastal areas of the North Atlantic and North Pacifi Oceans, and also enter navigable rivers and lakes. Although no precise figures are available, the northern Pacific population is estimated to number at least 350,000.

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeS5YellowNAR (May 1999)
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Notes

Since this species was account was written in 1984 (approx.), population numbers of the Harbour Seal have increased. In 2009, it was estimated that “about 105,000 harbour seals currently inhabit coastal waters of British Columbia, compared with a population that had been reduced to perhaps 10,000 when the first surveys were conducted in the early 1970s” (Olesiuk 2009). This is “likely similar to pre-exploitation levels that occurred in the 1880s” (Olesiuk 2009).

Additional Note prepared by E-Fauna BC

Additional Photo Sources

Species References

References for the Additional Note:

Olesiuk, Peter. 2009. Population Assessment Pacific Harbour Seal (Phoca virtulina Richards). Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Region

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2024-07-13 4:10:11 PM]
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