We have had a warm winter and early spring in eastern Canada this year. That makes it a tough year for Harp Seals.
Harp seals are named Pagophilus greenlandicus, which means ‘ice lover from Greenland’. Each year, late in the winter, they travel south to breed on the ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and on the edge of the ice pack along the coast of eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. The pups are born on the ice, nursed on the ice, and then when they are couple weeks old, they molt their ‘white coats’ for a fur they can swim in, their mothers leave, exhausted by the very intense nursing, and the young lie around on the ice using up their fat reserves as they grow into something that can start to swim and feed independently. The ice provides safety from all predators except for humans..
The ice floes in the St.Lawrence usually grow in January and February to pretty well fill the Gulf, and the end of March has been a safe time for the seals to arrive and breed. Not this year, however. Never before, it seems, in the memories of old Gulf fishermen, has there been a year with so little ice. Why not this year? Too warm, and too windy.
This year, the females arrived on schedule in mid to late March, ready to give birth, and found no ice floes. They can delay the process of giving birth for a week perhaps, but not much longer. What options have they had? Many are believed to have given birth at sea: their pups will all have drowned. Many gave birth on the shingle beaches along the western coast of Newfoundland, but then appear to have abandoned their pups, and those pups died.
So the hunt/harvest/slaughter (choose your descriptor) in the Gulf this year is a bust. The harvest quota for the Gulf is 110,000 seals – but the females won’t breed successfully, and the hunters in the Gulf won’t get near any seals anyway, for they also rely on the ice floes.
But surely we shouldn’t leave it there. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, responsible for managing the hunt, should institute ‘adaptive management’ and cancel this year’s harvest. In fact a moratorium would be appropriate, providing the seals some time to recover. If the warm winters persist – and over time they are expected to occur increasingly frequently – then breeding in the Gulf of St. Lawrence will probably cease.
Will the seals be able to adapt to the loss of their ice floes? Let’s at least give them the opportunity. Let’s call off the harvest. This is just sane management.
We don’t even need to raise the questions of the ethics of the harvest, though all the world would approve a moratorium. Except China, perhaps.