Author Archives: susanjcrockford

Less than usual ice conditions off Labrador have meant very few polar bear sightings

I’ve been wondering ever since last year why reports of polar bears onshore in Labrador especially and also the north coast of Newfoundland, have been virtually non-existent. This year there has been little ice off Newfoundland except for the Northern Peninsula but relatively abundant ice off the south coast of Labrador.

Yesterday, Canadian Ranger and polar bear guard Jefferey Keefe of Black Tickle (which is on an island off the Labrador coast) said on a CBC radio interview (13 April 2021) that while in 2019 they had 72 sightings around the community over the season, last year they had 7 and so far this year they have had only 2 sets of tracks – but no actual sightings of bears. He estimated the average number of sightings per year is about 20, and that he had talked to his colleagues in Makkovik (north of Rigolet on the map below) and their experience is similar. It appears that numbers are down throughout southern Labrador, although one bear was seen in Charlottetown last week (south of Black Tickle).

Keefe said that the sea has been very rough around the island this year, effectively breaking up the young sea ice almost as soon as it forms. They have no ice in their harbour right now, which is unusual. He thinks this lack of nearshore ice is keeping the bears further out on the pack ice: the bears are still out there but just taking different routes this year. Given the current ice conditions locally, he’s not really expecting any more visits this season.

Below is a detailed ice chart of the region from this year: Black Tickle is south of Cartwright, which is marked on the chart.

In 2019, I kept track of published polar bear sightings in Labrador, not all of which were in Black Tickle. I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss any (Crockford 2020), but there was nowhere near 72 reports overall, let alone 72 just in Black Tickle. See here (mid-Feb); here (late Feb); here (mid-April); here (late May).

However, I was also pretty sure that every single sighting wasn’t making the news, which this information confirms. A total of 72 sightings in 2019 in Black Tickle alone is impressive! In Newfoundland, there were an impressive number of sightings in 2017.

The ice came early to Labrador in 2019 and continued to be be relatively heavy throughout the spring. There was lighter ice in 2020 but not as late and light as this year. From the comments of Sgt. Keefe, it seems the wind and sea conditions very close to shore have had more of an impact on potential polar bear visits in southern Labrador than the ice conditions well offshore. Although a population collapse would also explain the dramatic decline in sightings, there is no evidence I’ve heard about that Davis Strait numbers are way down, as some have predicted.

Listen to the whole thing at 13:30-18:00 on the tape.

Crockford, S.J. 2020. State of the Polar Bear Report 2019. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 39, London. PDF here.

Harp seal pup production poor in Gulf of St. Lawrence but it won’t impact the population

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.

Headline from a National Geographic story on the harp seal pup mortalities this spring, 18 March 2021

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.

References

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

Polar bear problems onshore in Svalbard before prime feeding season

At the end of March there were two polar bear incidents on the same day in Svalbard, where one bear trashed a holiday cabin. Think a door or a window can keep out a polar bear? Think again!

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Choose verifiable facts over emotional narratives on polar bear conservation

Polar bears continue to be described as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ for the effects of human-caused climate change, but the evidence shows they are far from being a highly-sensitive indicator species.” Susan Crockford, 24 February 2021

You’ll find the evidence I allude to above – backed up by references to the peer-reviewed literature – in my many publications (Crockford 2015; 2017; 2019, 2020, 2021). My open-access research paper from 2017 has been downloaded more than 6,000 times and despite this being an online forum for legitimate scientific critique, none has been offered. My comprehensive polar bear science book released just two years ago (see below) has a 4.7/5.0 star rating on Amazon, with 132 reviews so far.

For recent blog post examples of the evidence that polar bears are thriving despite profound summer sea ice loss, see this discussion about the many contradictions that exist for claims that sea ice declines have caused harm to polar bear health and survival and this review of the evidence that less summer sea ice has meant more food for polar bears.

For those who haven’t seen it, I’ve copied below the preface from The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened. This book is an antidote to the emotional blackmail coming at the public from all sides by journalists, polar bear specialists, and elite influencers like David Attenborough.
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Polar bears are an environmental success story: short video from ICSC Canada

From Tom Harris at ICSC Canada: In ‘State of the Polar Bear Report 2020’, zoologist Dr. Susan Crockford writes, “in 2020, even though summer sea ice declined to the second lowest levels since 1979, there were no reports of widespread starvation of bears, acts of cannibalism, or drowning deaths that might suggest bears were having trouble surviving the ice-free season.

22 March 2021 [1:34]

Polar bears are thriving: an ICSC Canada short video

From Tom Harris at ICSC Canada: Polar bears are nowhere near as sensitive to declining sea ice than originally thought. In fact, their population is now three times higher than in the 1960s. 17 March 2021 [1:28]

 

Will low sea ice threaten harp seals & polar bears on Canada’s East Coast this year?

In early February this year, sea ice was much lower than usual along the Labrador coast and virtually non-existent in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which are two important pupping habitats for North Atlantic harp seals. The picture would have been very bleak for harp seal pups and the Davis Strait polar bears that depend on them for food if ice hadn’t expanded and thickened by early March – but it did. Past experience suggests that harp seals that usually whelp in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where ice is still well below average this year, will move to ice off Southern Labrador (‘the Front’) to have their pups.

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Polar bear attack in Svalbard: victim survives, polar bear does not

A man was attacked from behind this morning by a small male polar bear on the east coast of Svalbard, Norway, where there is abundant sea ice. His companion shot the bear and the victim escaped with minor head injuries. Most bears are very hungry at this time of year because the seal pupping season has not yet begun.

Young bears are extremely dangerous and the most likely to attack people (Crockford 2019; Wilder et al. 2017): a three year old male fatally attacked a camper in August 2020 just outside Longyearbyen, Svalbard, an incident unfairly blamed on lack of sea ice (Crockford 2021).

UPDATE 3 March 2021: Results of an autopsy conducted on the polar bear killed yesterday revealed it was a 6 year old male that weighed only 231 kg, which is less than usual for an adult bear later in the season but likely typical for a relatively young bear at the end of winter before seal pups are born. See quote from a Norwegian polar bear specialist below [my bold]:

Jon Aars, an institute researcher who has spent many years studying bears in Svalbard, told Svalbardposten the vast majority of bears ages six to 15 will weigh between 350 and 450 kilograms in April, when the spring hunting season is typically at its peak.

“It may have been aggressive because it was thin,” he said. “It is likely. The thinner they are, the greater the chance that they are dangerous. He is at an age where he is not frequently considered as a problem bear – it is mostly among the younger or the very old who have problems.”

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Podcast with WildFed about polar bears and domestication as speciation

A couple weeks ago I had a fabulous chat with Daniel Vitalis from Wildfed about a wide range of topics, including my work on polar bears and domestication as a process of speciation. The podcast went live this morning – have a listen here (also copied below), I think you’ll enjoy it. One hour, 36 minutes.

More polar bear catastrophe hype: bears use four times more energy than expected

Last week (24 February 2021), The Guardian was promoting a study that claims polar bears now use four times more energy than expected to survive because of ‘major ice loss’ in the Arctic, as a way of suggesting that the animals are already on their way to extinction.

But like many papers of this type, this study by Anthony Pagano and Terri Williams (Pagano and Williams 2021) is yet another model describing what biologists think may be happening based on experimental data collected from individual bears, not a conclusion based on evidence collected from subpopulations with the worst amounts of ice loss.

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