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CHARLOTTETOWN, Canada -- Thousands of harp seal pups are assumed dead in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence due to the lack of ice floes, which mother seals require to give birth and nurse their pups successfully. Experts with IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare - www.ifaw.org) have been carrying out daily surveillance flights over the region. They report that the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is the annual birthing ground of hundreds of thousands of harp seals, is essentially devoid of both ice and seals.
"The conditions this year are disastrous. I've surveyed this region for six years and I haven't seen anything like this" said Sheryl Fink, a senior researcher with IFAW. "There is wide open water and almost no seals. I only saw a handful of adult harp seals and even fewer pups, where normally we should be seeing thousands and thousands of seals."
The ice conditions this year are among the worst on record. Scientists have recorded below average ice conditions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off Newfoundland for the past nine out of 11 years. In 2002, 75% of harp seal pups born in the Gulf died due to lack of ice before the hunt even began. This year, the ice conditions appear to be even worse than in 2002 and scientists with IFAW are concerned that pup mortality will be extremely high.
"It's highly likely that this year we could have close to 100% pup mortality in the Gulf of St. Lawrence due to the poor ice conditions caused by rising temperatures," said Dr. David Lavigne, IFAW's science advisor, who recently co-authored a report on the impacts of global warming on harp seals.
Experts with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), which monitors the harp seal population and sets targets for annual commercial seal hunt in Canada, have also acknowledged the increase in seal pup mortality this year. It is cited as one reason why the Canadian government has yet to announce the total allowable catch (TAC) or official start date of the this year's hunt, which is due to begin any day.
"It would be reckless for the government to allow the hunt to proceed this year, given the high pup mortality that has apparently occurred," said Fink. "We may not be able to save these seals from the effects of global warming, but the Canadian government can save the survivors from being hunted. I can only hope that they will do the right thing and cancel the hunt."
The Canadian government has permitted nearly one million seals to be killed in the past three years. The government quotas have continually exceeded the number of seals that can be safely removed without causing the population to decline. Last year, the TAC was set at 335,000 seals (far above the estimated sustainable level of 250,000) and the total number of seals reported killed was over 354,000 - exceeding the legal limit by 19,000 animals. Of the 354,000 seals killed last year, 98% were under three months of age.