Mild winter saves seal pups from hunters, but …

 OTTAWA — The annual hunt for harp seals off the coast of eastern Canada will barely take place this year. But this is not good news for the seals.

An exceptionally mild winter in the usually frigid Gulf of St. Lawrence has combined with several related factors to discourage Canadian hunters from pursuing the seal pups, whose pelts are prized by the fur industry. The grim spectacle of pups being bludgeoned on the ice by hunters has long been cited by animal rights activists seeking to curtail the annual hunt.

The same phenomenon that is behind the decision of most seal hunters to keep their boats in harbors this spring — the warm weather that left the waters off the coast largely ice-free — also threatens the young harp seals. Harp seals make ice their main habitat, and 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 little ice and scattered herds of harp seals has persuaded most hunters to stay home.

“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 thinks that none of the 30 to 40 boats from Cape Breton will participate in the seal hunt this year. The situation is much the same in the neighboring 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 survived, only to be crushed by moving ice or separated from their mothers. Those born on beaches or shore ice have fallen prey to coyotes and even bald eagles. The lack of ice also means that survivors will not have vital spots to rest when they head to sea.

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 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, they would produce about 280,000 pups.

While it is too early to estimate the extent of this year’s losses, government scientists have observed unusual patterns in the seals’ activities this year.

Many female harp seals delayed giving birth for up to two weeks as they searched for ice. A large number of seals traveled about 150 kilometres 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 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 Veronik de la Cheneliere, 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.

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.