Climate change catastrophe: worst ice year on record leads to harp seals’ demise

Wednesday, 24 March, 2010
Charlottetown, Canada
Thousands of harp seal pups are presumed dead in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence and starving pups are being found abandoned on the beaches of Prince Edward Island, tragic victims of the worst ice conditions recorded in eastern Canada.

IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare – reports that the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is the annual birthing ground of hundreds of thousands of harp seals, is essentially devoid of both ice and seals.

“The conditions this year are disastrous for seal pups. I’ve surveyed this region for nine years and have never seen anything like this,” said Sheryl Fink, a senior researcher with IFAW.  “There is wide open water instead of the usual ice floes, and rather than the hundreds of thousands of seal pups that we normally encounter, only a handful of baby harp and hooded seals – animals that are normally found on ice – remain on the beaches.”

Extremely high pup mortality is expected this year, making this one of several such occurrences in the past decade.  In 2007, 99% of harp seal pups born in the Southern Gulf of St Lawrence are thought to have died due to lack of ice. In 2002, 75% of pups are thought to have suffered the same fate. Scientists with IFAW are concerned that the cumulative effects of high pup mortality due to the poor ice conditions, and high numbers of pups killed during Canada’s commercial seal hunt could be devastating

“Finding these ice-dependent seal species on land is extremely unusual, and should be considered a warning signal.  The seal pups we have found on shore are thin and unable to defend themselves or escape from land-based predators. It is highly unlikely that any of these pups will survive long enough for there to be a seal hunt in the southern gulf this year,” added Fink.

Earlier this month, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea increased the total allowable catch of harp seals (TAC) by 50,000, to 330,000 animals. The Minister’s announcement was loudly condemned by animal welfare organizations, conservationists, and sealers, in a rare moment of agreement.

“It is reckless and irresponsible for the government to allow the hunt to proceed this year, given the high pup mortality that is expected,” said Fink. “Under a precautionary approach, we should be protecting the few pups that might escape the devastating effects of climate change this year. Given the almost complete lack of demand for seal skins, allowing the commercial slaughter of these survivors to proceed is simply adding insult to injury.”

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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Sheryl Fink, Campaign Director, Canadian Wildlife
Campaign Director, Canadian Wildlife
Sonja Van Tichelen, Vice President of International Operations
Vice President of International Operations