Tag Archives: harp seal

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

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 sea ice habitat highs and lows in early February

Sea ice across the Arctic in the first week of February is a mix of highs and lows. Bering Sea is back up to almost normal coverage, as is the Barents Sea. However, ice coverage on the East Coast of Canada is the lowest its been in four decades. This is not yet a worry for polar bears because harp seals don’t pup until mid-March in this region so there is at least four weeks of potential ice growth that can happen before the seals are forced to pup on much reduced ice – where polar bears are sure to find them.


Here is a close-up look at sea ice conditions by region at the edges of the Arctic. Continue reading

New report: Harp seal population critical to Davis Strait polar bears is still increasing

The report on the latest population estimate for harp seals off the east coast of North America was released in late March without fanfare and therefore no media attention. This was one of the missing scientific reports mentioned in my State of the Polar Bear Report 2019 released in February (Crockford 2020): results of surveys promised for months or years by early 2020 but not delivered.

Harp seal on ice around PEI _DFO 2017

Not surprisingly then, we find the report has good news: the population estimate of harp seals in the NW Atlantic has risen to about 7.6 million (range 6.55-8.82) animals (DFO 2020), up from 7.4 million in 2014 (DFO 2014).

Note that the survey was done in March 2017, a low ice year for the Gulf of St. Lawrence (see discussion below) and while this may have resulted in some increased mortality for pups born there, it is also known that many ‘Gulf’ pregnant females will instead have given birth off Newfoundland and Labrador in a whelping region called ‘The Front’. Apparently, these factors were accounted for in the population model.

Harp seal pups born at the Front are an important food for Davis Strait polar bears. This increase in the prey base for Davis Strait polar bears suggests the bear population may have grown substantially since the last survey in 2007 (Peacock et al. 2013; Rode et al. 2012). Davis Strai is the only subpopulation of polar bears officially considered to have ‘likely increased’ at 2018 by Environment Canada. A new Davis Strait population size survey was apparently completed in 2018 but the results are not yet available (Crockford 2020).

Harp seal pup_DFO Newfoundland

Highlights, quotes, and figures from the harp seal report below. Continue reading

Polar bears prowling Newfoundland come on top of coronavirus fears

On Tuesday 17 March 2020, several polar bears were reported in and around the community of St. Anthony on the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, adding another threat on top of coronavirus concerns in the province. The photo below is from a 2018 Newfoundland sighting from the same region: none are available for the current report.

NP-PolarBearSighting 2018-6_large

There have been no reports of trouble but locals will have to stay vigilant to remain safe, which since 2008 has been a common concern from late winter to early spring. In 2012 in this area, a bear was shot after it destroyed homes and attacked livestock; another bear was shot the next week in the same area. And in 2016 and 2017, a bear had to be shot to protect residents. Bears at this time of year are in hunting mode, which is why my polar bear attack thriller novel, EATEN, is set in March.

Newfoundland Great Northern Peninsula map

Current sea ice conditions below.

UPDATE 22 March 2020: “Just after 1 p.m. on March 21, the RCMP St. Anthony advised they blocked off Goose Cove Road, St. Anthony, as a polar bear has been sighted in the area. Wildlife is en route to assess the situation. In the interest of public safety residents are asked to stay away from this area.” From Saltwire here. Another report on the same sighting here.

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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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