Tag Archives: harp seal

Spring feeding for polar bears is over – sea ice levels are now largely irrelevant

Polar bears in virtually all regions will now have finished their intensive spring feeding, which means sea ice levels are no longer an issue. A few additional seals won’t make much difference to a bear’s condition at this point, except perhaps for young bears that haven’t had a chance to feed as heavily as necessary over the spring due to inexperience or competition.

Polar bear feeding by season simple_Nov 29 2015

The only seals available on the ice for polar bears to hunt in early July through October are predator-savvy adults and subadults. But since the condition of the sea ice makes escape so much easier for the seals to escape, most bears that continue to hunt are unsuccessful – and that’s been true since the 1970s. So much for the public hand-wringing over the loss of summer sea ice on behalf of polar bear survival!

Polar bears in most areas of the Arctic are at their fattest by late June. They are well prepared to go without food for a few months if necessary – a summer fast is normal for polar bears, even for those that spend their time on the sea ice.

Putting on hundreds of pounds of fat in the spring to last through periods of food scarcity later in the year (at the height of summer and over the winter) is the evolutionary adaptation that has allowed polar bears to live successfully in the Arctic.
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Lingering late season sea ice brings polar bear visitor to northern Newfoundland

Polar bear season for St. Lunaire-Griquet Newfoundland ran from 6 March to 10 June this year — three long months when polar bears came to visit the community during the season when bears are usually occupied with feeding on young seals and mating.

Newfoundland polar bear 10 June 2018_Iceberg Festival Committee_Thresa Burden photo

Below is a map of the region: St. Lunaire-Griquet is at the tip of the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, just north of St. Anthony (where some of the action in my polar bear attack thriller, EATEN, takes place):

Saint Lunaire Griquet Newfoundland location_Google maps

As of yesterday (June 10), when the last sighting of a fat and healthy polar bear took place, there was still quite a mass of thick first year ice (>1.2 m thick) off the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, amongst a field of icebergs:

Hudson Bay North daily stage of development 2018 June 10 ice warning

The first sighting in the area this year was back in early March, which I blogged about here. Fortunately, the Davis Strait bears that occupy the East Coast pack ice are usually well feed at this time of year and seldom pose a serious threat to humans: the fact that visitors ashore are often easily pursuaded to leave (or do so on their own) suggests they are more curious than hungry.

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Polar bear sighted onshore in northern Newfoundland at St. Lunaire-Griquet

The first report I’ve seen this season of a polar bear onshore has come in and ironically, it comes from northern Newfoundland, the setting of my polar bear attack thriller, EATEN. Only time will tell if this year will be as active as 2017’s record-breaker for polar bears ashore in Newfoundland.

Saint Lunaire Griquet Newfoundland polar bear_VOCM news_6 March 2018

Update: 6 March 2018. A couple of hours after posting this, CBC News Newfoundland published a story on this incident, providing a bit more detail and video footage of the bear wandering around local houses.

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Polar bear habitat update end of April 2016: Plenty of sea ice for feeding

So, here we are near the end of the first month of the Arctic spring and there is still more ice than usual off Labrador and conditions in the Barents Sea are improving daily. The fear-mongers can blather all they like about the potential risks of bears swimming in summer – but spring is the critical season as far as sea ice is concerned for polar bears and all polar bear biologists know it. Polar bears consume 2/3 of all the food they need for the year during April-June and so far, ice conditions are looking just fine.

Cambridge Bay_we re OK_from Joe Prins

There is enough ice where there needs to be ice for polar bears to gorge themselves on new-born ringed and bearded seals – and that’s really all that matters. More ice off Labrador means more hunting ground for the Davis Strait polar bears that depend on the tens of thousands of young harp seals born this year off the Front.

Harp seal pup_DFO Newfoundland
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Polar bear habitat update: Labrador sea ice highest in 20 years

Sea ice off the southern Labrador coast hasn’t been this high for this date in 20 years: that’s great news for the harp and hooded seals that will give birth at the Front in another few weeks – for a while anyway, because a bumper crop of baby seals is also good news for the polar bears who gather there to eat them.

Sea_ice_near_coast_of_Labrador_-a_wikipedia sm

So brutal, but true. The polar bear must gorge over the short Arctic spring and early summer to survive the rest of the year.

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Harp seal: most abundant Arctic seal is an undervalued polar bear prey species

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.

Harp seal pup_DFO Newfoundland

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.

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Polar bear habitat mid-winter update

Sea ice extent in the Arctic is a bit below average this year at mid-winter but there are no data to suggest this situation will have a negative impact on polar bears.

Sea_ice_near_coast_of_Labrador_-b_wikimedia_sm_26 March 2007

[Photo above is sea ice off the coast of Labrador, Canada on 26 March 2007 (from Wikimedia): polar bears in the southern portion of the Davis Strait subpopulation have been particularly successful in recent years because in late March through May/June they hunt abundant numbers of young harp and hooded seals in this habitat]

Polar bear researchers presume that most animals eat little to nothing over the winter, because it explains why even non-pregnant bears are at their lowest weight at the beginning of spring.

Sea ice charts and maps below. Continue reading