The Heat Is Online

Seal Pups Casualty of Early Spring

An early melting hurts seals, hunters in Canada

The Boston Globe, April 1, 2002

MONTREAL - The early disappearance of ice in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence, which some scientists believe is linked to global warming, is wreaking havoc on harp seals - which give birth on the floes - and causing economic hardship for hard-pressed fishermen who depend on the controversial spring hunt.

Hundreds of drowned seal pups have already washed up on the shores of Newfoundland after their mothers gave birth in open water, apparently unable to find ice. The final death toll of pups may be in the hundreds of thousands.

Meanwhile, the club-wielding fishermen who normally take to the ice in a hunt that has drawn international criticism since the 1970s are remaining in port, with no icebound seals to harvest for fur, vitamin-rich oils, and, lately, sex organs for the Asian aphrodisiac trade.

Environmentalists from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a Massachusetts-based group that for three decades has campaigned to save the seals, believe this year's near-absence of ice floes in birthing regions of the gulf may cause a catastrophic loss of newborns. Harp seals give birth on the floes, and pups need at least 12 days on the ice before they complete nursing and can take to the sea on their own.

At this time of year, ice packs normally stretch from Quebec's Magdalen Islands south to Prince Edward Island. By late March, the floes should be teeming with hundreds of thousands of seal mothers and their pups.

''In five days of flying over the entire region, we haven't been able to spot a single seal pup,'' Rick Smith, marine biologist and Canadian director of the anti-sealing group, said in an interview last week from Prince Edward Island. ''Usually, there are 200,000 to 300,000 harp seals born in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.''

Smith added: ''This could spell devastation for the population, not only in the Gulf but off Newfoundland, where the hunt may become even more intense to compensate'' for the lack of seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Other scientists are more sanguine, noting that ice floes fluctuate from year to year. They say it's too soon to tell whether harp seals in the gulf - where four of the past five years have seen less ice than usual, although not as dramatically as this year - are in serious trouble.

''The seals need ice, but whether there has been a real reproductive failure this year remains to be seen,'' said Ian McLaren, professor of biology at Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University and an authority on seals. ''One year's loss of pups is not necessarily a catastrophe.''

The Canadian cull is the largest hunt of seagoing mammals in the world and has been the target of a global crusade since 1977, when French actress Brigitte Bardot memorably cuddled with a baby ''whitecoat'' harp seal. Every spring, the International Fund for Animal Welfare leads a pack of journalists - mostly from Europe, where anti-sealing sentiment burns fiercest - onto the floes in an attempt to depict the hunt as heartless.

What they found this year was perhaps more horrifying than blood-drenched ice and mother seals wailing for their slaughtered young, Smith said.

''No seals,'' he said. ''We haven't laid eyes on a single seal herd.''

Sealing vessels from the Magdalen Islands, usually out in force in late March, are tied in port. Although the hunting quota for the gulf was set at 77,000 animals, the season is finished with only a few hundred seals taken. But the fear is that hundreds of thousands were stillborn or drowned at birth.

The hunt continues off the north coast of Newfoundland. With the total seal-kill target set at 275,000, anti-sealing activists are concerned that Canada will allow Newfoundlanders to kill an additional 77,000 seals - as an economic redress for the ruined hunt in the gulf - a level that activists contend would endanger the more northerly populations of harp seals.

The seals, which are clubbed to death or shot with high-powered rifles, are most valued for their fine pelts, although demand in Asia for powdered male seal sex organs - considered an aphrodisiac - has created a new market in recent years. Seal oil, rich in Omega-3 fatty acids that may be helpful in reducing blood cholesterol levels, is the other main product.

Still, the overall value of the industry is only about $12 million. For all the rhetoric of embattled sealers and their champions in Ottawa, sealing is about as critical to Atlantic Canada ''as cuckoo clocks are to the main economic activity of Germany,'' in the words of Newfoundland writer Ray Guy.

About 10,000 Canadians - nearly all from Newfoundland or the Magdalen Islands - depend upon the hunt as an important source of income. But almost no one in Atlantic Canada makes a full livelihood from it. The pelts go to Norway, whose furriers make the real profit.

Sealing was on the sharp decline until the early 1990s, partly because of the controversy, but mainly because it is so marginally profitable. Canada was more than happy to let the bloody cull slip into oblivion.

But then came the disastrous collapse of North Atlantic cod stocks, which put tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders out of work. Ottawa started promoting sealing as a small but vital alternative for the country's most impoverished region.

This year, for the first time in 30 years, there will be none of the ritualized clashes between sealers and seal lovers on the ice of the gulf. The ice is gone. The sealers barely left port. Smith and other anti-sealing campaigners packed their placards late last week and headed home.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/1/2002.