Tag Archives: Labrador

Explaining abundant polar bear sightings on the East Coast as an upshot of sea ice loss is absurd

Last week, a senior producer at CBC News, in order to concoct a timely story for ‘Earth Day’, attempted to explain the high number of sightings of polar bears this April in Newfoundland and Labrador, compared to the last two years, as a consequence of climate change and its handmaiden, loss of Arctic sea ice.

Title: ‘With an extinction threat looming, no wonder polar bears are at our door — and on the roof: there’s a grim reason why polar bears have been frequently showing up in coastal communities’. CBC News, 23 April 2022

The problem with this narrative is that the East Coast had much reduced sea ice in 2021 and virtually no polar bear sightings in Newfoundland and none in Labrador. There was more ice in 2020 than 2021 but also few bears. This year, ice extent was similar to 2020 for most of the region but polar bear sightings were up considerably.

In fact, the two years with the most sightings and problems with polar bears since 2008 were 2017 and 2018: in 2017, sea ice was exceptionally thick in April (although average in extent) and by June the sea ice was so thick and enduring that the Newfoundland fishing fleet couldn’t get out for spring openings; 2018 was another year of average sea ice extent and had even an even larger number of sightings than 2017, in Newfoundland especially (Crockford 2019:32). This suggests the sea ice vs. polar bear correlation on the East Coast since 2008 – if there even is one – may be the opposite of that stated in the CBC article: less ice usually means fewer bears onshore in Newfoundland and Labrador and more ice often means more bears.

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Newfoundland polar bear sighting updates and video

Here is a Youtube video of the incident I wrote about on Tuesday, of the bear that climbed up on an elderly woman’s house in St. Anthony last Sunday and then confronted her when she opened the door.

Statements from local officials included with a follow-up news report of the incident confirms that there were indeed no polar bear sightings along the Labrador coast in 2020 and 2021 and few (if any) along the Newfoundland coast: it wasn’t just a case of reports not making the news. In addition, it also appears that sea ice conditions this year brought an abundance of harp seal pups to the waters off southern Labrador and Newfoundland, which may mean that pregnant harp seals were giving birth further north for the past two years and the Davis Strait bears were simply staying with them.

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Polar bear encounter with dog in Black Tickle Labrador has a happy ending for both

In the first such report I’ve seen this season, last Sunday a family husky living on the south coast of Labrador met a curious young polar bear in very good condition; the bear left without incident but the family captured video of the encounter. Abundant ice offshore has almost certainly brought a number of Davis Strait bears south ready to feed on newborn harp seal pups, which won’t be available for a few more weeks.

From April 2019, also at Black Tickle.

We are approaching the season described in my polar bear attack thriller, EATEN. A timely read if you haven’t seen it yet, available in paperback and ebook formats.

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Davis Strait polar bears in Eastern Canada are thriving according to new survey

Pack ice is barreling down the Labrador coast, almost certainly bringing Davis Strait polar bears with it. And according to new survey results, those bears are doing just fine: numbers are stable, bears are fatter than they were in 2007, and cubs are surviving well – thanks largely to abundant harp seals.

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East Coast sea ice so far similar to last year

Davis Strait ice pack is slowly moving south this year just as shorefast ice is developing in-place along the Labrador shoreline, similar to last year. East Coast harp seals that give birth in the region in March depend on this ice and so do many Davis Strait polar bears that feed on those newborn seals. In contrast, in 2017 the ice off Labrador was broader by mid-January (even more so by mid-February) and that seems to have made a huge difference by April, when ice north of Newfoundland was thick and extensive.

Compared to last year at this time, there was somewhat less ice along the Labrador coast but the difference is really negligible. By April, ice extent was well below average, especially in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and there were few sightings of polar bears along the Labrador and Newfoundland coasts.

Back in 2017 at the same time (below), the band of ice along the southern Labrador coast was much broader, indicating more movement of Davis Strait ice from the north. This resulted in so many polar bear sightings in Newfoundland and Labrador by March and April that I could hardly keep up reporting them (Crockford 2019:32):

East coast conditions could change significantly over the next few weeks however, especially if weather conditions bring more north winds.

References

Crockford, S.J. 2019. State of the Polar Bear Report 2018. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 32, 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

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 bears can come ashore any time of year and cause trouble: a timely reminder

If you thought polar bears were only a danger to people in summer when sea ice is low, think again. Bears do occasionally come ashore early to mid-winter looking for food because hunting is difficult and they are approaching their leanest time of year. They simply walk from the ice onto land – often close to communities – because many things associated with modern human living are food attractants for polar bears.

This tracking map of Western Hudson Bay bears (females with collars) 11 January 2021 (courtesy Andrew Derocher) shows a bear just offshore near the community of Whale Cove on the northwest coast – close enough to come ashore if she decides that could be in her best interests:

Derocher had this to say about the location of this bear (12 Jan 2021):

It may be ‘odd’ for a bear to be so close to shore in winter but since we know that polar bears do come ashore in winter, it isn’t rare but ‘uncommon’. Most of the trouble with bears ashore seems to come in March/April on the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland when sea ice is more extensive and where 2017 was an exceptional year.

Trouble with bears in January/February:

2019 Labrador, Bears reported onshore in Labrador (January 2)

2019 Labrador, Bears onshore in Labrador causing problems (February 1)

2019 Alaska, Polar bear attack hundreds of miles from shore (January 15)

2016 Labrador, Bears onshore in Labrador (7 February)

2016 Summary of prior incidents and attractants (19 March)

Below: Sea ice conditions at 13 January 2021, North America compared to 2020 and 2019, showing how extensive the ice was in 2019 (and accounting for bears ashore at Labrador and Newfoundland in early January):

Below is a chart from 1985, when sea ice off Labrador and Newfoundland was as thick in mid-January as it was in 2019, yet as far as I know, there were no reports of bears ashore in Labrador or northern Newfoundland. This difference is almost certainly because the population size of Davis Strait bears had not yet recovered from previous centuries of overhunting and harp seals numbers were still quite low compared to what they rose to over the next three decades: currently, both Davis Strait polar bears and harps seals are abundant (DFO 2012, 2014, 2020; Peacock et al. 2013) and numbers could still be climbing, although the results of a recent bear survey in the region has not yet been published.

References

Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) 2012. Current status of northwest Atlantic harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus). Science Advisory Report 2011/070.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada DFO. 2014. Status of Northwest Atlantic harp seals, Pagophilus groenlandicus. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Sci. Advis. Rep. 2014/011.

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.

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

Polar bear damage to parked military helicopter shows their immense power

A polar bear punched out the window of a parked Royal Canadian Air Force search and rescue helicopter on 16 September in northern Labrador, which should be a reminder that these bears are extremely powerful and potentially dangerous.

If you ever thought you would be safe in a cabin or vehicle if a polar bear really wanted in, you might want to think again and remember that residents of the Arctic put up with this risk of polar bear attack, intrusion and damage all year long (Crockford 2019). And it’s not because the bears are simply ‘curious’.

Two photos below from Svalbard: of a bear that climbed onboard a boat moored offshore in 2019 while its occupants had lunch on the beach (damaging the hydraulic steering, vinyl seats, heating system, canopy, and an inflatable raft), and of a cabin ransacked by a polar bear in 2017 after it ripped the door off its hinges. Since it is my understanding that cabin owners in Svalbard are not permitted to leave stored food in unoccupied buildings, the attractants in these empty cabins must be other things that contain oil, like cleaning products, vinyl furniture, and candles.

 

 

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Polar bear sea ice habitat at the start of the Arctic winter is abundant except off Labrador

After a bit of ineffectual hand-wringing from polar bear specialists about low summer and fall sea ice conditions and unsubstantiated worries about impacts on bear survival – including Southern Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea and Hudson Bay  – I’ve heard no concerns expressed so far about the unusually low extent of ice off the East Coast of North America at the start of this winter. The Labrador Coast is just about the only region bereft of ice this winter but could catch up quickly at any time: ice coverage in the Barents Sea, East Greenland, and Bering Sea is similar to or above recent levels (last five years) so far, as is the overall extent.

masie_all_zoom_4km 2020 Jan 2

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