A seal biologist with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans has confirmed that harp seal pupping was almost non-existent this year in the Gulf of St. Lawrence due to poor sea ice conditions. The ice at the Front has been lighter than usual this year but probably adequate for a decent crop of baby seals.
The ice was definitely sparse in the Gulf this year. Reports in the middle of March indicated few white-coated baby harp seals were found in the Gulf this year, ruining the prospects for the specialized businesses that take tourists out to the ice by helicopter to view the adorable newborns in the wild.
However, while it is unfortunate for the local businesses, even the loss of all the harp seal pups in the Gulf this year will not seriously impact the total population. Even in a good year, at most a third of Northeastern Atlantic harp seals have their pups in the Gulf – the majority of seals give birth at the Front (DFO 2020; Stenson et al. 2015). So as long as ice there remains in decent condition over the next few weeks, most of the harps and their pups at the Front should be OK (see ice chart below for week of 5 April 2021).
As biologist Gary Stenson said in a radio interview today, the lack of harp seal pups in the Gulf this year may be due to pregnant females moving north to the Front to give birth, as they have been known to do in other low-ice years (Sergeant 1976, 1991), rather than because of massive mortalities. There have been some mortalities but not the tens of thousands some were expecting.
Predictably, the Humane Society International issued a press release calling for the seal hunt to be shut down in the Gulf this year but the government has dismissed these concerns, in part because there is very little sealing done in this region anyway.
Seal biologist Mike Hammill concurred the harp seals will be fine, even if ice in the Gulf becomes rare in the future:
“It’s not looking good for them in the Gulf of St Lawrence, but we anticipate that we’ll see a shift in distribution over time,” he says. “They’ll gradually disappear from the gulf, so instead of a third of harp seal pups being born there, maybe all the pups will be born off the Labrador coast.” [The Guardian, 13 March 2021]
At last count in 2017, there were an estimated 7.6 million (range 6.55-8.82) harp seals off the east coast of Canada (DFO 2020), up from 7.4 million in 2014 (DFO 2014). That’s a huge seal population. Harp seal pups are an important spring food source for Davis Strait polar bears (Peacock et al. 2013; Rode et al. 2012). A new population estimate of Davis Strait bears has apparently been completed but we are still waiting on the report (Crockford 2020).
Oddly, with all the hand-wringing about this year’s poor ice and recent years when sea ice in the Gulf has been poor, none of the reports ever point out that there have also been recent years when the sea ice was so heavy that it interfered with shipping: in 2019, for example, and 2014, and 2015. And 2017. Short memories.
Finally, a reminder my latest novel, UPHEAVAL, is set in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Cape Breton Island) and my first novel, EATEN, is set on the north shore of Newfoundland at this time of year. These are timely reads if you haven’t tried them and they make good gifts as well.
Crockford, S.J. 2020. State of the Polar Bear Report 2019. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 39, London. PDF here.
DFO. 2020. 2019 Status of Northwest Atlantic Harp Seals, Pagophilus groenlandicus. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Sci. Advis. Rep. 2020/020. http://www.isdm-gdsi.gc.ca/csas-sccs/applications/Publications/result-eng.asp?params=0&series=7&year=2020 PDF here.
DFO. 2014. Status of Northwest Atlantic harp seals, Pagophilus groenlandicus. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Sci. Advis. Rep. 2014/011. PDF here.
Peacock, E., Taylor, M.K., Laake, J., and Stirling, I. 2013. Population ecology of polar bears in Davis Strait, Canada and Greenland. Journal of Wildlife Management 77:463–476. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jwmg.489/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false
Rode, K.D., Peacock, E., Taylor, M., Stirling, I., Born, E.W., Laidre, K.L., and Wiig, Ø. 2012. A tale of two polar bear populations: ice habitat, harvest, and body condition. Population Ecology 54:3-18. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10144-011-0299-9
Sergeant, D.E. 1976. History and present status of populations of harp and hooded seals. Biological Conservation 10:95-118.
Sergeant, D.E. 1991. Harp Seals, Man and Ice. Canadian Special Publication of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 114. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa.
Stenson, G.B., Buren, A.D. and Koen-Alonso, M. 2015. The impact of changing climate and abundance on reproduction in an ice-dependent species, the Northwest Atlantic harp seal, Pagophilus groenlandicus. ICES Journal of Marine Science 73(2):250-262. http://icesjms.oxfordjournals.org/content/73/2/250