Big thaw kills seals spared by cull

NATURE can be as cruel as man. Hunters of the harp seal may be staying away from Canada's east coast this year, but many of this season's pups still face certain death.

An exceptionally mild winter in the normally freezing Gulf of St Lawrence has discouraged Canadian hunters from pursuing the seal pups, whose pelts are prized by the fur industry, and whose bloody deaths in the annual cull have so outraged animal rights' activists.

But the same phenomenon that has prompted seal hunters to keep their boats in harbour this spring — the warm weather that left the waters off the coast largely ice-free — is also threatening the young harp seals.

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Harp seals make ice their main habitat. They give birth on ice partly as protection from predators on land.

In Port au Choix, Newfoundland, and other communities around the gulf, hundreds of desperate harp seals arrived in late winter to give birth on fragments of ice clinging to the shoreline.

Then, a few weeks ago, seal pups born elsewhere began floating in on small, shrinking pieces of ice.

"It's the talk of the island," said Jeannie Billard, who tracked the seals with binoculars from an inn she owns in Port au Choix. "It's very unusual. If you see it twice in your life, you're very lucky."

The combination of a lack of ice and scattered herds of harp seals has persuaded most hunters around the gulf to forego the cull.

"We haven't seen any seals around the shore here anywhere," said Robert Courtney, the president of the North of Smokey-Inverness South Fishermen's Association in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. "I think they went to the north, 300 miles from where we are. It's too far."

Courtney believes none of the 30 to 40 boats from Cape Breton that usually participate in the seal hunt will set sail this year. The situation is much the same in the neighbouring Magdalen Islands of Quebec. Only one boat, whose crew hopes to provide seal meat to restaurants, has set out so far.

Nonetheless, seal pups are dying, many drowned at birth after slipping or being tossed from small slivers of ice. Others survive this, only to be crushed by drifting floes or separated from their mothers.

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Those born on beaches or shore ice have fallen prey to coyotes and bald eagles. The lack of ice also means that those that survive will not have anywhere to rest in safety when they head out to sea.

"Mortality is going to be higher than normal," said Garry Stenson, a biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who is based in St John's, Newfoundland.

Mike Hammill, a fisheries department biologist from Mont Joli, Quebec, said the last time circumstances were so dire for the seal pups was in 1981. "That year, the entire year class seemed to disappear," he said.

While scientists are generally reluctant to attribute individual weather events to climate change, many gulf residents view the ice-free spring as a sign of global warming. Environment Canada, the government department that provides weather forecasts, reported that until mid-March the ice was at its lowest extent in more than four decades of record keeping.

The Canadian government counts 6.9 million harp seals in the Gulf of St Lawrence herd. In a normal year, it would produce about 280,000 pups.

While it is too early to estimate the scale of this year's losses, government scientists have observed unusual patterns in seal behaviour.

Many female harp seals delayed giving birth for up to two weeks as they searched for ice. A large number of seals travelled about 100 miles beyond the usual northern limit of their range to find ice, although it is unclear how many females produced pups after the long journey.

The recession and a ban by the European Parliament on the sale of furs and other products from commercially harvested seals have lowered the value of seal pelts. Where they once sold for more than 65, they now fetch between 5-10. The government has not formally cancelled the seal hunt this year, a decision that animal rights groups have criticised because of concerns over how many pups will die because of the unusual circumstances.

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The Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network said it had received about 50 telephone calls recently from people who had found baby seals struggling to survive on shore. Most years, it said, it gets at most one or two such calls.

The response to callers, said Vronik de la Chenelire, a biologist with the group, is always the same: let nature take its course. Harp seals generally do not thrive in captivity, and scientists are concerned that seals brought into captivity and then released will introduce diseases into the gulf that may harm other species, particularly beluga whales.

"In some cases these animals are probably condemned to death," she said. "When people find this little furry ball on the shore, they tend to react as they would after finding a lost kitten or puppy.

"But these are wild animals; they have to be left alone."