Mid-February is the tail end of the winter fast for polar bears. Sea ice is approaching it’s maximum global extent but local maximum extents may vary. Most of the sea ice in Canada is locked in already but two regions still vary at this time of year: the Labrador Sea off Labrador and Newfoundland – where polar bears come to feed on an abundance of newborn harp seals – and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where polar bears have not been spotted in more than 60 years.
There is almost certainly enough ice for harp seals to give birth in the Gulf this year, if the ice holds (despite some premature hand-wringing by seal biologists). There is more ice in the Gulf and off Newfoundland this year than there was in 2013 (see map below). Continue reading
The harp seal is the most abundant seal species in the northern hemisphere (estimated to number more than 9 million animals – that’s more harps than ringed seals) but are found only in the North Atlantic. Partly because they give birth on mobile pack ice, harps have their pups earlier in the season than all other Arctic seals, which means that in some regions, they are a critical food source for polar bears that have eaten little over the winter months.
Although young ringed seals are considered the primary prey of polar bears throughout the Arctic, young harp seals undoubtedly represent an increasingly important resource for populations of Davis Strait, East Greenland and Kara Sea bears.
Most of the harp seals in the NW Atlantic/Atlantic Canada (about 80% of them) have their pups off Newfoundland and Labrador, an area known as the “Front” (the location of my polar bear attack novel, EATEN: special deals all this week). Harps seals at the Front now provide a huge prey base for polar bears of the large (and possibly still growing) Davis Strait subpopulation (photo below courtesy DFO Canada).
There are an estimated 7.4 million harps in Atlantic Canada today (range 6.5-8.3m), an exponential increase over the early 1980s, when perhaps only half a million so remained. Pagophilus groenlandicus was assigned a conservation status of ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN Red List in June last year (Kovacs 2015), when it was estimated that the global population size of the harp seal was greater than 9 million animals and probably growing1, 2 due to reduced human hunting:
“…harp seals have been harvested for thousands of years but currently the population is large and the number of animals harvested is declining.” [my bold]
Photographers and animial rights activists love cute, fluffy harp seal pups and rarely mention the carnage that goes on in spring as polar bears devour the naive youngsters. See the video below (from 2008), for an example of the cuteness factor.
Posted in Life History, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Atlantic, beaters, Eaten, facts, Gulf of St. Lawrence, harp seal, hooded seal, Labradore, moulting, Newfoundland, polar bear, prey, Red list, seal hunt, spring feeding, video, whelping, whitecoats
There is still below average ice extent in the Barents Sea but there is no data whatsoever to indicate that this situation poses a problem for polar bears, given that as far as researchers know, polar bears eat little or nothing during the winter. That’s why the bears are at their leanest at the end of winter and why seal pups born in early spring are such a critical food source.
Note on map below (from WUWT Sea Ice Page, marked; original here) that polar bears are not found in three areas that are included in the total Arctic ice extent figures: below-average or above-average ice in the Sea of Okhotsk, Baltic Sea, and Gulf of St. Lawrence have no impact on polar bear health and survival.
Additional ice maps below. Continue reading
Posted in Life History, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Baltic, Barents Sea, Derocher, facts, fast, Gulf of St. Lawrence, polar bear, risk, sea ice, Sea of Okhotsk, t, threatened, winter
Using sea ice maps issued by the National Sea Ice Data Center (NSIDC), it’s interesting to compare these two years with respect to polar bear health and survival (keeping in mind that no polar bears live in what I like to call the armpits of the Arctic – the Sea of Okhotsk, the Baltic Sea or in the Gulf of St. Lawrence)1:
22 January 2016
Posted in Conservation Status, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Arctic, Baltic Sea, Barents Sea, darkness, Derocher, facts, feeding, Gulf of St. Lawrence, habitat, NSIDC, polar bear, sea ice extent, Sea of Okhotsk, spring, starving, survival, Svalbard, winter
Newborn harp seals are food for Davis Strait, East Greenland and Kara Sea polar bears but wildlife photographers see only cute furry babies with big eyes and trusting natures.
See these photos taken some unknown spring (early March) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada (published 29 December 2015 by Mailonline): the pups are kind of skinny when first born but fatten up quickly on fat-rich milk from their attentive mothers. Ask yourself: does this photographer know that the fattest of these baby seals he oh’s and ah’s over in his commentary are just what polar bears depend on for their existence – and that the bears will eat as many of them as they can catch, peeling them like bananas so that they can eat the skin and fat first?
The title of the piece is: “Eye-eye! Cheeky seal cubs just a few days old wink and pose for the camera as they wait for their mother to feed them:
- The young Harp seal pups had never seen humans before the pictures were taken
- They were photographed in their habitat of Madeleine Island in Quebec, Canada
- Harp seals are solitary animals except during breeding season, when they congregate in their thousands“
“These seal-ebrities from Canada are pictured striking hilarious poses that even Cara Delevingne would be proud of.
The three Harp seal pups – just days old – were passing time while they waited for their mother to return from hunting.
One pup looked straight to the camera with a cheeky wink, while another lay on its back looking longingly at the lens.
The impressive poses were captured by photographer Gunther Riehle, who was lucky enough to get just feet away from the baby seals on Madeleine Island in Quebec.”
See the photos here. Harp seal and hooded seal distribution and breeding areas in the Eastern Arctic (from DFO Canada).
More polar bear seal prey info here. See potential consequences of lots of polar bears depending on abundant harp seals north of Newfoundland in my novel, EATEN.
Posted in Advocacy, Life History
Tagged baby seal, cute, Davis Strait, East Greenland, facts, food, Front, Gulf of St. Lawrence, harp seal, Kara Sea, newborn, photographer, polar bear, prey, pups, West Ice, White Sea
EATEN – my new polar bear attack novel – is set in Newfoundland 2025 for a reason. I wondered: what if sea ice coverage 10 years from now is as high or higher than it has been for the last two years, with inevitable positive effects on Davis Strait harp seal and polar bear populations?
The Canadian Ice Service prediction for this region, released earlier this week (1 December 2015, see references for link), is that 2016 is set to meet my “what-if” scenario handily. Nine years to go! See the CIS expected ice coverage for 19 February 2016 below (CIS fig. 3):
How does the above ice map compare to the last two years? At least as high or higher. Have a look below.
Posted in Conservation Status, Life History, Polar bear attacks, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Canadian Ice Service, Crockford, Davis Strait, Eaten, Gulf of St. Lawrence, harp seals, Labrador, March, Newfoundland, novel, polar bear, polar bear attacks, predictions, spring, swimming polar bears, what if