Sea ice off Newfoundland thickest ever yet another polar bear comes ashore

Amid reports that ice conditions between Newfoundland and southern Labrador are the worst in living memory, another polar bear was reported ashore in the area — just after biologist Andrew Derocher explained to the CBC that bears only come on land when sea ice conditions “fail.”

Strait-of-belle-isle pack ice_April 19 2017_Nordik Relais

“Ice too thick for coast guard’s heavy icebreaker” said a 20 April 2017 CBC report on the state of ice in the Strait of Belle Isle. The pack is thick first year ice (four feet thick or more in places) and embedded with icebergs of much older, thicker ice. The ice packed along the northern shore of Newfoundland is hampering fishermen from getting out to sea and is not expected to clear until mid-May.

NASA Worldview shows the extent of the pack ice over northwest Newfoundland and southern Labrador on 19 April 2017 (the Strait of Belle Isle is the bit between the two):

Newfoundland Labrador sea ice 19 April 2017 NASA Worldview

The same day that the above satellite image was taken (19 April), at the north end of the Strait on the Newfoundland side, a polar bear was spotted in a small community northwest of St. Anthony (marked below,  “Wildberry Country Lodge” at Parker’s Brook). It’s on the shore of north-facing Pistolet Bay on the Great Northern Peninsula, near the 1000 year old Viking occupation site of L’Anse aux Meadows.

Parkers Brook location on Pistolet Bay

There were no photos of the Parker’s Brook bear but lots of others have been taken this year of almost a dozen seen along Newfoundland shorelines since early March: see my recently updated post, with an updated map of reported sightings. Harp seals are now abundant in the pack ice of southern Davis Strait, providing polar bears with an ample source of food when they need it most and therefore, a strong attractant to the area.

St brendan's bear 01 VOCM report 5 April 2017 Tracy Hynes

Yet, as I reported yesterday, polar bear specialist Andrew Derocher told the CBC this week that polar bears are almost always “forced” ashore by poor ice conditions. The CBC report included his tweet from 10 April, where he suggested “failed” Newfoundland ice conditions were the cause of multiple bears onshore in Newfoundland this year.

Similar thick ice conditions off northern Newfoundland (perhaps even worse) occurred in 2007, see Twillingate in the spring of 2007 below:

Twillingate-heavy ice-20070523_2007 CBC David Boyd photo

Yet, in 2007 there was not a single polar bear reported onshore in Newfoundland (as far as I am aware) but this year there were almost a dozen. And the photos taken this year show fat, healthy bears – not animals struggling to survive.

A 21 April 2017 CBC article (“Changing sea ice bad omen for province’s polar bears: professor”), based on an interview with Derocher, quoted me saying this: “the polar bear sightings may be signals the population is rising.”

And here’s the full quote from the 12 April 2017 CBC article, based on the CBC Radio interview I gave that day for their Gander station, “Highway of ice: Easy route for polar bears chasing food, expert prof says” [a day or so after the article was posted, some petty soul [Derocher?] must have objected to me being referred to as an “expert”],  which shows my statement was suitably nuanced (my bold):

She said an increasing polar bear population may also be part of the reason for the sightings.

“Bears have been put on the list of threatened or vulnerable species because of concerns about what might happen in the future,” she said.

Derocher chose to interpret this as Crockford saying flat out that there have been more Newfoundland sightings this year because there are more Davis Strait bears, but the only evidence he can provide to counter that suggestion is a vague statement about having a “pretty good sense” of “what’s going to happen to polar bears” sometime in the future (my bold):

Last week, a zoologist who teaches at the University of Victoria said the polar bear sightings may be signals the population is rising. But Derocher said it isn’t so.

“There are literally dozens of studies that all point the same direction on sea ice and climate and what’s going to happen to polar bears. So we have a pretty good sense of that.”

Contrast this with a report from 2012, when the province saw what was (at that point) an unusually large number of polar bear sightings and incidents:

police_surround_deadbear_THE STAR_6 April 2012

“Polar bear encounters on the rise in Newfoundland and Labrador” (The Star, 6 April 2012), my bold:

Unusual pack ice conditions have prompted polar bear warnings in coastal Newfoundland communities, and two bear have been shot dead.

Pack ice conditions unusually close to shore have prompted several polar bear warnings in coastal communities, and two bears were shot dead in the last week.

Wildlife officers shot a bear a week ago after it damaged several homes and killed livestock in Goose Cove, and police killed another one Tuesday when it got too close to homes in Greenspond in northeastern Newfoundland.

Shannon Crowley, a senior biologist with the provincial Environment Department, says the bears are tracking pack ice and seals that are especially close to shore this year around northern Newfoundland.

He said the bears are part of the Davis Strait population which is not considered endangered. It was estimated at about 2,200 bears six years ago, up from the most recent survey more than 20 years earlier.

Abundant harp seals, which make up much of the Davis Strait polar bear diet, may help explain those numbers, Crowley said in an interview. However, that particular population is still considered vulnerable because of potential effects of global warming on sea ice, he added.

“There is a true public safety concern,” Crowley said of the recent spate of onshore sightings and incidents.

“Polar bears just don’t have fear of many things in the environment that they’re in. They’ve been known to come right up when icebreakers are coming through … put their front paws on it and sniff, just check it out. They’re very curious.

“Ideally, in most situations, they just move on their way. But in some cases they may decide to hang out, and that becomes a public safety issue.”

Apparently, it was OK with Derocher for Shannon Crowley to say such things in 2012 (a male biologist) but not OK for me (a female biologist) to say essentially the same thing in 2017. Go figure.

Here’s what the ice looked like today:

Sea ice extent Canada 2017 April 22 CIS

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