Study: Warming Arctic Is Decimating Harp Seal Populations
Scientists from Duke University and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have conducted a study of the harp seal in northern Canada. Harp seals, the cute and cuddly creatures, have long been hunted for their prized furs. To add to their struggle, the thinning ice is playing havoc with their breeding ground. Female seals depend on stable winter ice to give birth and feed their young in peace. Forced to go to ice closer to land, the baby seals are sitting ducks for arctic predators and human hunters. The seal pups are being forced to fend for themselves before they are ready. As a result, their populations are dropping catastrophically.
The study has highlighted Canada's need to shut down its commercial seal hunt. Last Thursday, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an organization of Canadian government scientists, said that Canada should permanently ban seal hunting while compensating hunters and training them for other professions.
"It is time for the Canadian government to face the reality that the commercial sealing is neither viable nor necessary," said the organization.
Other northern countries have already taken action on the harp seal issue. Russia recently banned the import of harp seal pelts. The European Union only allows seal products from Inuit communities, not Western commercial hunting.
The Duke University study tracked sea ice cover in all four harp seal breeding grounds of the North Atlantic. Since 1979, the ice cover decreased by up 6 percent each decade. In particularly low sea ice years, the scientists estimate that nearly all of the seal pups die. In 2011, up to 80 percent of baby seals were believed to have died, according to the department of fisheries and oceans.
Stable sea ice is required for female harp seals to nurse their young until the pups are able to hunt on their own. During their breeding season in February and March, they seek thicker and older patches of ice.
During this time, thousands return to traditional breeding grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off Newfoundland, despite the thinning ice. To save themselves, they will need to go to areas with more stable ice such as those off eastern Greenland.
"There's only so much ice out there, and declines in the quantity and quality of it across the region, coupled with the earlier arrival of spring ice breakup, is literally leaving these populations on thin ice," Duke University researcher, David Johnston said. "It may take years of good ice and steady population gains to make up for the heavy losses sustained during the recent string of bad ice years in eastern Canada."
The study has been published in the journal PLoS ONE.
Link to published article: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0029158