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Without ice, where are harp seals giving birth this winter?

Natasha Kumar By Natasha Kumar Mar7,2024

Without ice cream, où Are harp seals giving birth this winter?

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The harp seal needs the sea ice to reproduce. It serves as a birthing area, and the young seals remain there for a few weeks after they are weaned. (Archive photo)

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Pêches et Océans is currently seeking to know where harp seals take refuge to give birth, given the absence of solid ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and near the coast of Newfoundland.

Last week, a team from the Maurice-Lamontagne Institute flew over the surrounding areas of Prince Edward Island, the Magdalen Islands and Chaleur Bay for two days.

They detected no signs of calving in the southern Gulf, even in the few places where ice had formed.

< p class="StyledBodyHtmlParagraph-sc-48221190-4 hnvfyV">What we saw was ice that was of very poor quality, sometimes we saw ice where there could have been births, but we saw no sign of births this year during our two flights, says biologist specializing in marine mammal population dynamics at the Maurice-Lamontagne Institute, Joanie Van de Walle.

We saw a few harp seals, but they were always individuals who were alone on the ice, we did not see any female with a young.

A quote from Joanie Van de Walle, biologist from Fisheries and Oceans Canada

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On February 27 and March 2, a team from the Maurice-Lamontagne Institute flew over the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence by helicopter, but observed no signs of calving.

Although the scientist admits it is possible her team missed some births due to limited flight time and the inability to comb the entire gulf, she believes that it is more plausible that the seal flocks are located further north.

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During winters with very poor ice, harp seals would give birth elsewhere, further north, where ice conditions are better, she points out. On the other hand, this year, the ice conditions are not very good either in the northern Gulf, off the coast of Newfoundland.

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The waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence are currently open, whereas historically, an ice floe formed there.

< p class="StyledBodyHtmlParagraph-sc-48221190-4 hnvfyV">Other Fisheries and Oceans teams are expected to conduct overflights next week to try to spot seals off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. Traditionally, calvings there take place two weeks later than those in the southern Gulf.

However, observations could be difficult if the ice is favorable at birth are too far from the coast, because the aircraft used for these low altitude flights have a limited amount of fuel.

They might be very limited in their ability to go see them, says Joanie Van de Walle. The seals may be beyond the limit where they can make observations.

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In the past, thousands of harp seals massed on the ice floe surrounding the Magdalen Islands to give birth, like here, in March 2022.

According to biologist Joanie Van de Walle, a massive mortality of whitecoats has already been observed when ice conditions were poor, notably in 2010.

When there are storms, the water warms and the ice melts, young people can drown and this results in massive mortality, explains- t-she.

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Low solid ice cover favors high mortality of young seals. (Archive photo)

In the absence of ice, could females even be forced to give birth in the water, causing the immediate death of their offspring who cannot swim from birth?

The biologist cannot answer this question with certainty.

We don't really know what the females do, Van de Walle admits. Perhaps this summer, we will observe whitecoats which will wash up on the banks in the south of the gulf, that could give us an indication that there have been some births this year anyway, but it is more probable, in our opinion, that [the mothers] went north to seek better ice conditions to give birth.

The director of the x27;Association of intra-Quebec seal hunters, Gil Thériault, is of the opinion that the harp seal could adapt to the absence of ice and climate change.

In my opinion, it is quite clear that the harp seal will adapt quite quickly, he believes. It will stay in the north rather than coming to the gulf, and if the ice is not even sufficient there, it will give birth on the banks quite quickly as its cousin, the gray seal, learned very quickly.

This hypothesis is, however, not confirmed by scientific observations.

For the moment, there have never been any observations of harp seals giving birth on land, says Joanie Van de Walle.

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According to data from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, until 2004, 85% of gray seals gave birth on the ice. Since then, that number has dropped to less than 5%. Instead, they use the shores of isolated islands, including Brion Island, as breeding sites. (File photo)

The biologist specifies that the entire life cycle of the harp seal is closely linked to the presence of ice, unlike that of the gray seal. The latter spends the entire year in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, while the harp seal, as its name suggests, spends most of the year off the coast of Greenland, in Baffin Bay or Davis Strait, and descends into the Gulf when winter comes.

For the director of the Association of intra-Québec seal hunters, the Current conditions suggest that the annual harp seal hunt off the Magdalen Islands is a thing of the past.

From now on, the harp seal hunt will be mostly anecdotal.

A quote from Gil Thériault, director of the Association of Intra-Québec Seal Hunters

According to Mr. Thériault, the last major excursions harp seal hunting on the ice floe around the archipelago dates back to 2008.

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The Madelinots traditionally hunted harp seals on the ice floe. In recent years, hunters have been focusing on gray seals on dry land. (Archive photo)

He still believes that the traditional activity, which allowed the islanders to survive for decades, will be able to be practiced sporadically.

Maybe one year in five, one year in eight, provided that the harp seal does not completely lose the habit of coming to the Gulf, which is also possible, he emphasizes. It remains to be seen, it is not easy to make predictions. We know that nature changes quickly and enormously.

Gil Thériault does not believe that the absence of ice is a threat to the harp seal, which the number of individuals is estimated at 4.7 million individuals in the Northwest Atlantic.

I don't really have any fears for the survival of the seal, it's an animal that is very intelligent, very adaptable, believes Mr. Thériault.

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Gil Thériault, director of the Association of Intra-Québec Seal Hunters

Moreover, the Association of Intra-Québec Seal Hunters is asking Ottawa to update the regulations surrounding the hunt.

According to Gil Thériault, these regulations are no longer up to date, because they were put in place for the harp seal hunt, on the pack ice, whereas it is now the gray seal which is most hunted in the gulf, directly on dry land.

There is resistance from Fisheries and Oceans to revise the regulations, but it is absolutely necessary to do so because there , we are completely off track with the gray seal, he laments. The gray seal is there all year round, so we can hunt it almost annually.

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Natasha Kumar

By Natasha Kumar

Natasha Kumar has been a reporter on the news desk since 2018. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times Hub, Natasha Kumar worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my natasha@thetimeshub.in 1-800-268-7116

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