Native and European hunters have been pursuing seals along Canada's Atlantic coast for centuries.
In this year's hunt a special allocation of 10,000 seals was made for aboriginal hunters in the far north.
Some native groups fear the repercussions of a renewed backlash against the harp seal harvest. Inuits in the Canadian Arctic hunt mainly ringed seals, but some communities were hard-hit by a European import ban on harp seal products imposed in 1983.
The commercial hunt today is largely carried out by fishers in Newfoundland and Quebec (map).
Backers of the hunt say it brings vital income to coastal communities devastated by the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery in the 1990s. Last year's harvest of 320,000 harp seals generated about 16.5 million Canadian dollars.
Although the government acknowledges that the cod fishery collapse was largely due to mismanagement, many Newfoundlanders blame the seals, which eat cod, and want the herd size reduced.
David Lavigne, science advisor to the nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare, says the allowable harp seal catch is set beyond sustainable levels as a result of Newfoundland politics.
"Canada's commercial seal hunt is currently a cull, consciously designed to reduce the size of the population from one year to the next," Lavigne said.
A New Variable: Climate Change
The Canadian government estimates the total harp seal population to be over five million and says the hunt is sustainable at current levels.
But some scientists say a series of light ice years, beginning in 1996, may be having an impact that is not detected by government studies.
Lavigne, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, says that although the ice has been poor in 7 of the last 11 years, wildlife managers have failed to address the effects of a changing and unpredictable environment on the harp seal population.
"The government model might take a number of years to actually detect a population decline," Lavigne said. "It's a very risky approach."
About a third of the Atlantic harp seal population spends the winter in the Gulf of St. Lawrence region. The rest winters farther north, off the coast of Newfoundland, where the hunt will shift to mid-April.
Duke University biologist Ari Friedlaender says ice cover is highly variable in both regions, and it has been decreasing in critical areas.
"The places where sea-ice cover tends to be reduced the most are where the big pupping areas are," Friedlaender said.
"There is evidence that in light ice years, there is an increase in mortality of young pups."
Other seal species in the region have already suffered from this year's ice shortage.
South of Prince Edward Island (map), about 1,500 young gray seals were killed last month when a tidal surge swept across a small island where their mothers were forced to give birth due to a lack of sea ice.
Initially researchers feared there might not be sufficient ice this year for the southern harp seal population to use.
Although that worst-case scenario did not occur, ice coverage has been thin, and floes are already drifting east out to sea between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
"Thin ice is unstable and susceptible to wave action," said Garry Stenson, a marine-mammal researcher with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans in St. John's, Newfoundland.
"There can be high mortality if animals get dumped in the water."
Stenson says he and other government scientists are taking the changing ice conditions into account when estimating the size of the population and the impacts of the hunt.
"Climate-change models suggest there will be less ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and more storms. That would be detrimental to the southern populations," Stenson said.
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