for National Geographic News
Thin ice is killing baby seals in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence by the thousands and forcing the delay of the area's annual harp seal hunt for the second year in a row.
The controversial tradition, the world's largest marine-mammal hunt, was originally slated to begin on March 28. It is now expected to kick off sometime later this week, say officials with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
The hold was placed because, like last year, the ice floes where harp seals congregate to give birth and raise their pups are breaking up due to higher-than-normal temperatures.
Many of the young animals—unable to swim well and poorly insulated from the chilly waters—are drowning, animal welfare groups say. (Related story: "Seal Hunt in Canada Opens on Thin Ice" [March 24, 2006].)
The ice conditions this year are so poor that the hunt should be cancelled altogether, says the nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
On Thin Ice
Satellite imagery shows that this year's ice coverage is even less than 2002, when experts estimate that about three-quarters of Canada's seal pups died because of thin ice.
"This is the worst ice we've had since 1981," said Mike Hammill, a DFO spokesperson.
It's the fifth year of bad ice out of the last seven, intensifying a recent trend that many believe is the effect of human-caused global warming.
The Canadian Ice Service says sea ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the waters northeast of Newfoundland is at a record low this year (see a Newfoundland map).
The ice that had been in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has moved out to the east coast of Cape Breton Island, where it is exposed to the battering open sea, Hammill added.
"We would expect a more rapid deterioration and breakup," he said.
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