Tag Archives: harp seal

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

Human sees cute – polar bear sees dinner

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.

Harp sea newborn_wikipedia

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).

Harp and hooded seal pupping areas and distribution_Stenson 2014 fig 1

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.

Polar bear habitat update – sea ice for hunting plentiful in all subpopulation regions

Preferred polar bear habitat is said to be 50% concentration or higher over continental shelves, which describes all but the fringes of sea ice extent today, including Hudson Bay, the Southern Beaufort, and the Barents Sea.

Preferred polar bear habitat 50pc concentration_May 8 2015_PolarBearScience

However, polar bears – excellent swimmers that they are – are quite capable of utilizing areas with 15-50% sea ice concentration if necessary (Durner et al. 2004; Rode et al. 2014:79), especially when prey are plentiful.  This would account for the fact that there are still sightings of polar bears in and around northern Newfoundland (see previous post here and photo below1), where ice concentration is in the 30-50% range.

Photo with this news story (7 May 2015): "(Update) Polar bear sighting in Croque"

Photo with this news story (7 May 2015): “(Update) Polar bear sighting in Croque”

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Spring ice alarm deflated – 2015 ice now as high as 2014 & Davis Strait highest since 1971

Arctic ice extent (at 14.1mkm2) on 15 April, was virtually identical to 2014 on that date, and higher than 2006. But the record goes to Davis Strait, which recorded the highest ice extent since 1971 for the week of April 16, while the waters of Eastern Newfoundland to the south (where most harp seals have their pups) had the third highest ice extent since 1969. Lots of fat baby seals are just what polar bears need at this time of year.

Harp seal pup_DFO Newfoundland

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