The Heat Is Online

Thinning Ice Plus Hunting Threatens Canada Seals

Canadian seals hit by thinning ice cover, Jan. 21, 2003

OTTAWA - The seal population off Canada's Atlantic Coast is suffering because Ottawa continues to allow hunters to kill hundreds of thousands of the animals each year despite clear evidence the ice cover is rapidly thinning, activists said.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) - which is opposed to the seal hunt - issued a report saying climate change means the ice cover in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the province of Newfoundland had been much smaller than average in six of the last seven years.

Dr. David Lavigne, the IFAW's senior science advisor, said this was hurting harp and hooded seals, which give birth on the ice in late February and March and nurse their young for around 12 days.

"There have been reports of reduced survivorship of pups and certainly, in the strong ice years earlier in my career, very few pups died within the first few weeks of life," said Lavigne, who has been studying seals since 1969.

"In recent years we've had bodies washing up on the shore along the East Coast of Canada - (these are) animals that presumably have been abandoned by their mothers and starved, and other animals that have been crushed in the ice as it breaks up," he told a news conference.

The annual hunt has become a public relations nightmare for Ottawa, which last year allowed hunters to cull 307,000 harp and hooded seals. In addition, Lavigne said, around 250,000 harp seals were also being killed a year off Greenland.

"Even if you use the Canadian government's own model, the total allowable (Canadian) catch is set higher than the replacement yield, which seems to be a conscious decision to deplete the population," said Lavigne, saying the annual hunt should be cut to 50,000 seals.

This would cause political problems for the federal government, which says the cull protects depleted fish stocks and provides jobs in economically depressed Newfoundland. The province's prosperous cod fishery collapsed a decade ago and some fishermen say seals are partly to blame.

"That's a rather simplistic view of the scientist has demonstrated that culling seals in the north-west Atlantic will benefit fisheries but lots of people make that claim. It's a very dangerous game to play," said Lavigne.

The hunt, which usually begins in mid-March in the Gulf of St Lawrence and continues for another two months, is by far the largest cull of marine mammals in the world.

The total population of the two seal species is estimated at more than five million. No one at the federal ministry was immediately available for comment.

Lavigne - who wrote the report with three members of Duke University's Marine Laboratory - said the reduction in ice cover was most likely due to a combination of global warming and a local weather pattern known as the North Atlantic Oscillation.