Tag Archives: Newfoundland

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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Raise your hand if you knew Newfoundland was devastated by a major tsunami in 1929

Only a few months ago, I discovered that the Burin Peninsula on the south shore of Newfoundland in eastern Canada was devastated by a major tsunami in 1929, which inspired my new short novel, UPHEAVAL. My story is about an ice tsunami that devastates Cape Breton Island in 2026 (an ocean wave triggered by an earthquake or underwater landslide becomes an ice tsunami when it travels under sea ice before it comes ashore). Here are the details on that little-known 1929 tsunami event – which even a colleague who is a tsunami advisor for his area of Alaska and family members who had lived in Nova Scotia had never heard of before.

 

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Speculation on ice-trapped whales: science-based fiction vs. dishonest science

Ice entrapment of whales is known to happen across the Arctic, including Davis Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. How common such phenomena were in the past or might be in the future are subjects of conjecture. However, while speculation is the bread-and-butter of science-based fiction, it is the bane of peer-reviewed science.

I’ve written two novels informed by science set a bit in the future (2025-2026) in Eastern Canada: EATEN was set in Newfoundland and my latest book UPHEAVAL –see a review here – is set in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. In UPHEAVAL, one of the issues I explore is ice entrapment of large whales, like North Atlantic right whales. I speculate in the story whether carcasses of ice-killed whales might provide a powerful enough attraction to lure Davis Strait polar bears down from Labrador and the Strait of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence – and if they did, what might be the repercussions of that shift in distribution.

Here I argue that a novel is the appropriate place for this kind of speculation and researchers who offer such conjecture to the public in a way that conflates a science-informed guess with evidence-based fact risks eroding public trust in science.

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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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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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Rare winter polar bear visit to northern Newfoundland New Years Eve 2019

Although ice coverage along the Labrador coast this fall has been well below average, there was a report today of a polar bear on shore on the north west coast of northern Newfoundland. The media seem to be treating this as an every-day sort of thing rather than the true rarity it is. As far as I know, there are no records of polar bears onshore in Newfoundland in late December and for it to happen this year is especially surprising given that ice coverage so far has been below average on the East Coast. It’s a more rare event than the early January attack last year by a polar bear in Alaska that had traveled more than a hundred miles inland. Will 2020 be another active polar bear season for Newfoundland? Time will tell – stay tuned over the new year.

polar-bear-black-tickle_Edwin Clark submitted to CBC no date

Few details have been provided about this year’s late December sighting at Green Island Cove, just north of the ferry port of Saint Barbe (where the ferry to Labrador docks, see below). No photos or descriptions of the bear were made public and so far the bear does not seem to have caused any trouble: the photo above is from another sighting in Labrador a few years ago.

Green Island Cove Newfoundland map Google

Sea ice this year has been scarce on the East Coast, but obviously enough for at least one determined bear to have made its way down from Davis Strait, swimming part of the way. See the two charts below:

Sea ice Canada 2019 Dec 31 HB caught up

Newfoundland East daily stage of development 2019 Dec 31

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Fat polar bears causing trouble onshore in Labrador plus sightings in Newfoundland

What sounds like a mother and half-grown cub paid a visit to a cabin outside Black Tickle, Labrador and frightened the residents trapped inside. The aggressive female was part of at least 10 bears seen around the community on 14 April 2019 and photos of one of them show a bear in excellent condition. A bear in good condition was also spotted on the north coast of Newfoundland over the weekend, delivered to land by sea ice that’s moving back into the area after winds blew it offshore last month.

Batteau-labrador Carrie Dyson photo 17 April 2019

Near Black Tickle Labrador, mid-April 2019. Carrie Dyson photo.

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OK in the 80s but not now: ‘seeing more polar bears means there are more bears’

Wait for it, it will come: backlash from polar bear scientists for a statement by an Inuk bear safety guide in Labrador, reported by the CBC yesterday. The guide said there are more polar bears now than there were 25 years ago based on the fact that he is seeing more bears and that more bears mean more trouble with bears, including attacks on people. As I point out in my new book, The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened, only in the 1980s did biologists admit that seeing more bears meant there were actually more bears.

polar-bear-black-tickle_Edwin Clark submitted to CBC no date

This bear visited Black Tickle in Labrador a few years back. Edwin Clark photo.

It has not been OK anywhere else in the world over the last few years to suggest that seeing more bears meant more bears, whether you were Inuk or not – whether describing a subpopulation that’s officially ‘increasing’ or not.

According to biologist Andrew Derocher (University of Alberta), who famously said last year that ‘you can’t equate seeing more bears with there being more bears,’ all of the increased sightings and problems with bears in Labrador and Newfoundland are due to poor ice conditions. His colleague Ian Stirling (also University of Alberta) similarly puts the blame for increased polar bear/human conflicts and fatal attacks in Nunavut on a ‘shortage of ice‘. For polar bear specialists, it’s always ‘less ice‘, never ‘more bears.’

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Polar bear habitat update: abundant sea ice across the Arctic, even in the Barents Sea

Abundant ice in Svalbard, East Greenland and the Labrador Sea is excellent news for the spring feeding season ahead because this is when bears truly need the presence of ice for hunting and mating. As far as I can tell, sea ice has not reached Bear Island, Norway at this time of year since 2010 but this year ice moved down to the island on 3 March and has been there ever since. This may mean we’ll be getting reports of polar bear sightings from the meteorological station there, so stay tuned.

Walking bear shutterstock_329214941_web size

Sea ice extent as of 11 March 2019, from NSIDC Masie:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2019 March 11

Much of the ice that was blown out of the Bering Sea early in the month has returned and ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the East Coast of Canada is the highest its been in years, threatening to impede ferry traffic between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, as it did in 2015 and again in 2017. The fishing season off Newfoundland might also be delayed by the heavy ice, as it was in 2017.

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