Startling Lack of Ice in Gulf of St. Lawrence Could be Deadly for Harp Seals

An almost total absence of ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year is likely to spell trouble for harp seals.

The post was written by the International Fund for Animal Welfare's Senior Research and Projects Specialist Sheryl Fink, who is based in Guelph, Ontario.

An almost total absence of ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year is likely to spell trouble for harp seals.

According to Environment Canada data, such a severe lack of ice has not been observed in eastern Canada in the past 30 years. Such a profound shortage of breeding habitat will have undoubtedly have a lethal effect on harp seal pups t his year.

Historically this is the week when harp seals begin to give birth to their pups in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The adults seals have migrated southward, some 4500 kilometers from their summer Arctic home, to congregate on the ice, give birth, and nurse their pups.

Unlike other species such as grey seals, harp seals almost never haul out on land. They require a solid, stable ice platform on which to give birth and nurse their pups.

Incredibly, nature has prepared these animals for temporary shortages of ice, and mothers may withhold giving birth for up to two weeks. When they find no ice in the traditional birthing areas, they will swim elsewhere in search of ice. There is hope that some may find it in the Northern Gulf and give birth there, or off the coast of PEI. Some mothers may return northward, back to the Front off the east coast of Newfoundland, to give birth on the ice there. But at some point the pups must be born, and without any ice, many mothers will be forced to abort their pups in the water.

This is not the first time such conditions have occurred, and the increase in the number of below-average ice years experienced recently is startling. Ice conditions in eastern Canada have been below normal for the past 16 years now. While one year of bad ice may not spell disaster for the harp seal population, the cumulative effect of increased pup mortality in several bad ice years is likely to have significant consequences for the population. Unfortunately, these effects may not appear in the government’s seal surveys until it is too late.

In light of the deteriorating ice conditions and loss of critical breeding habitat, the responsible thing for the Government of Canada to do would be to end the commercial seal hunt.

IFAW has always called for an end to Canada’s commercial seal hunt on the basis that it is inhumane and unnecessary. But if the end is brought about by climate change, habitat loss, and the premature death of seal pups, there will be no reason to celebrate. Instead, we will be mourning the destruction of yet another magnificent wildlife species, facilitated by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Comments: 1

7 years ago

The lack of ice is a tragedy that will likely kill more than the DFO harp seal quota. And for that all you people living in cities that buy your meat at a grocery store from a pretty display are to blame.
Industry created this mess. If we were still hunters and gatheres can you please admit that this would not happen.

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