Last modified: Tuesday September 22nd, 1999

Grey seal

Halichoerus grypus (Fabricius, 1791)


Grey seal male

The males of this species are 195-230 cm long and weigh 170-310 kg. Females have a length of 165-195 cm and a weight of 95-105 kg. Pups are at birth 95-105 cm long and weigh 11-20 kg. This is the seal species with the most pronounced sexual dimorphism. Males are dark with light patches and have an elongated snout with a wide heavy muzzle. Females are light colored with dark spots. Pups are born with a white lanugo and moult after 2-3 weeks.


There are three different stocks. The West Atlantic stock ranges from Cape Chidley in the north of Labrador, through Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Nantucket, RI. The East Atlantic stock can be found on Iceland, the Faroe Islands, in Norway from Møye to North Cape, around the British Isles (where the majority of the seals can be found around the Hebrides) and some in the Wadden Sea, along the continental North Sea coast and in Brittany, France. The Baltic stock is located in the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland and along the Baltic coasts of Poland and Germany.


The grey seal feeds on local inshore fish species, cephalopods and crustaceans. Bonner (1982) estimated a daily consumption of 7½-12½ kg. Prime and Hammond (1988) investigated the diet of the grey seal population of Donna Nook (UK). They found the diet to consist predominantly of flounder, sole, sand eel, cod and whiting. They estimated the total annual consumption of that population at 863,500 kg.

Population dynamics and life history

Grey seal males at the National Zoo, Washingtoon DC

Females become mature at ages 4 to 7 and males at ages over 10 years. Gestation lasts 11½ months including a delay of implantation of 3 months. The pregnancy rate is assumed to be between 80 and 90%. The longevity for females is 46 years and for males 26 years. Adult female mortality ranges from 6 to 13½%. First year mortality is, depending on the location, 34-60%.

Trophic relations

There may be some competition for food with the harbor seal, Phoca vitulina. The killer whale can be a predator in some areas.


Grey seal female

Many of the fish species in the grey seals' diet are commercially exploited, so there is competition for resources with the fisheries. Grey seals have been seen to raid the nets of fishing boats and completely empty them. They also do damage to set nets. Consequently some seals drown in the nets or are shot by the fishermen. Another concern relating to the fisheries is that the grey seal acts as a vector of the cod worm, Phocanema. Since the life cycle of the cod worm is a complex one, the importance of the grey seal therein is hard to determine.

Population size

Several censuses have been carried out of grey seal populations, using land, boat and aerial counts. The West Atlantic stock is estimated at 30,000 animals, of which 17,900 are located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and 9,400 at Sable Island. For the East Atlantic stocks the following estimates have been derived for some subgroups:

The total for the East Atlantic stock is somewhere between 85,000 and 89,000. Bonner (1979) estimated the Baltic stock to consist of 5,000 animals. For the early 1980's Helle (1983) estimated the population at only 1,000-1,500. Halkka (1987) and Keränen and Soikkeli (1989) mention a populations size of the Baltic stock of 1,500 to 2,000 animals. Helle (pers. comm.) estimates the 1988 Baltic stock at about 2,000 seals. The 1995 Baltic population was estimated to consist of 5,300 seals (Halkka, pers. comm.) The world population of the grey seal is probably between 120,000 and 124,000. The West and East Atlantic stocks are increasing. The Baltic stock has shown a marked decrease, but seems to be recovering again.


Grey seal male at the National Zoo, Washingtoon DC

The grey seal populations in Scotland and Canada are regulated because of the codworm problem. In the United Kingdom on average 1,000-1,500 pups have been taken annually. A management plan has been enacted on the Outer Hebrides and Orkney, in which between 1977 and 1982 on average 4,000 pups and 900 adult females were taken (Harwood and Greenwood, 1985) on alternating locations. This scheme had some side effects. Because of the disturbance caused by the hunt, females abandoned their pups. Also females did not return to their original breeding sites in years subsequent to a hunt. This management plan was enacted for 6 years and has not been continued. In Iceland there is no regulation of the hunt, but annually about 500 pups are killed. In other areas, except the Faroes, the grey seal is protected, but may be shot by fishermen if the seals approach their nets.

Threats to the population

Only the Baltic stock is still in danger, because of the pollution of the Baltic Sea with organo-chlorines (DDT, PCB). Also net and fishing gear entanglement is a large problem there (Helle (pers. comm.), Halkka (1987), Keränen and Soikkeli (1989)).


Bonner, W.N. (1979)
Grey Seal. in: Mammals in the Seas, volume II: pinniped species summaries and report on sirenians. FAO Fisheries Series No. 5, Vol II, pp. 90-94
Bonner, W.N. (1981)
Grey Seal, Halichoerus grypus Fabricius, 1791. in: Ridgway, S.H. and Harrison, R.J. (eds.): Handbook of Marine Mammals, vol. 2: Seals, pp. 111-144, Academic Press Inc., Ltd, London
Bonner, W.N. (1982)
The status of seals in the United Kingdom. in: Mammals in the Seas, Volume IV: small cetaceans, seals, sirenians and otters. FAO Fisheries Series, No. 5, vol. IV, pp. 253-265
Bonner, W.N. (1982a)
Seals and Man. A study of interactions. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 170pp.
Haaften, J.L. van (1983)
The grey seal (Halichoerus grypus). in: Reijders, P.J.H. and Wolff, W.J. (eds.): Marine mammals of the Wadden Sea. Report 7 of the Wadden Sea Working Group. in: Wolff, W.J. (ed.): Ecology of the Wadden sea, vol. 2, pp. 7/48-7/50, A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam.
Halkka, A. (1987)
Hallikallioilla. Suomen Luonto 46(50: 20-23
Harwood, J., Greenwood, J.J.D. (1985)
Competition between British grey seals and fisheries. in: Beddington, J.R., Beverton, R.J.H. and Lavigne, D.M. (eds.): Marine Mammals and Fisheries, pp. 153-169, George Allen & Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, London
Helle, E. (1983)
Hylkeiden elämää.Kirjayhtymä, Helsinki, 171 pp.
Keränen, S., and Soikkeli, M. (1989)
Ajojäällä syntynyt, Forssan Kustannus, Forssa, Finland, 127pp.
Prime, J.H., Hammond, P.S. (1988)
Quantative assessment of gray seal diet from fecal analysis. in: Huntley, A.C., Costa, D.P., Worthy, G.A.J., Castellini, M.A. (eds.): Approaches to marine mammal energetics, pp. 165-181, Soc. Mar. Mammalogy Spec. Publ. No. 1, Lawrence, Kansas.

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