Controversial Seal Hunt Delayed 2nd Year Due to Ice Breakup

Hannah Hoag
for National Geographic News
April 2, 2007
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.

Devastating Effects

Harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus) rely on sea ice in the gulf and off Newfoundland and Labrador to give birth to, nurse, and wean their pups.

"This particular species really prefers ice" over land, Hammill said.

After being born, the white-furred pups nurse for 12 to 14 days. Then the mother leaves and the pups are weaned.

These juveniles moult during the next two weeks, trading their snow-white coats for silver ones flecked with small dark spots along each side.

Poor ice conditions mean more pups may die, while less food could be available for those being weaned.

The pups can't swim very well and they tire quickly, Hammill pointed out.

"They are little butterballs of fat that pop around like wine corks," he said. "They will drown. They need the ice to rest."

Ted Miller of Memorial University in Saint Johns, Newfoundland, added that "the seals are absolutely ice dependent, and their numbers will get hammered if it goes down."

Officials say they expect high mortality among pups this year. Some groups are even estimating that close to 100 percent of the pups will succumb due to fragile ice.

Unsustainable Practice?

In response to the dire conditions, Canadian fisheries minister Loyola Hearn announced this past Thursday that the ministry had reduced the number of seals that hunters can catch this year by 20 percent, to a total of 270,000 instead of last year's quota of 335,000.

About 30 percent of the seals are hunted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Most of the hunt—70 percent—occurs off Newfoundland and Labrador.

Officials say the harp seal population off the east coast of Canada is around five million animals—almost triple what it was in the 1970s—and that the hunt is necessary to keep the population under control.

But animal welfare group IFAW argues that the hunting limit is unsustainable and that the population will continue to decline if more than 165,000 seals are caught.

Sheryl Fink, a senior researcher with IFAW, said in a statement that she had flown over the region but had seen few seals.

"Normally," she pointed out, "we should be seeing thousands and thousands of seals."

Other animal welfare groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, say the hunt is cruel and unnecessary and want it to be called off.

Hammill, of DFO, said the most recent harp seal survey, carried out in 2004, found that the pup population had been stable since 1994.

The next survey will be moved up to 2008, he added, instead of a year later as planned.

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