Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Canadian Fur Seals: lack of winter sea ice magnifies impact of annual hunt

The annual Canadian fur seal hunt has been a hot button issue with most animal conservation groups. With a slow but growing anti-fur movement, there has been pressure placed on the Canadian government to terminate the hunts, but the government has resisted and remained in favor of the industry that the hunts support (many of the hunters are actually fishermen, participating when seasonal weather curtails their fishing activities).

This year, there has been an new wrinkle that poses an additional threat to the seals: a lack of winter sea ice. Normally, there is substantial sea ice that forms in the Gulf of St, Lawrence and this ice layer provides a critical platform for fur seal birthing grounds. (
To watch a video, click on the image above, then click on the web site's video link when the picture of a seal appears.)

According to the Humane Society of the United States, "
This year, Environment Canada [a government agency] says we are witnessing the worst ice in history off Canada’s east coast. For the first year on record, virtually no sea ice has formed in key seal birthing areas. The impact on seals will be devastating. Many mother seals are likely to abort in the water, and unprecedented numbers of pups will die."

Whether this loss of sea ice is a statistical anomoly or the result of climate change is difficult to determine. On the one hand, there is documented evidence of declining sea ice throughout the Arctic region extending over a marked period of years. However, looking at a graph of February winter ice for eastern Canada shows fluctuations dating back to 1969.

There was a growing decline starting in 1995, but there were marked increases in the later part of this first decade of 2000 until this year, when it plummeted, reaching an all-time low.

In any case, the lack of sea ice will definitely have an impact on the fur seal population due to the loss of seal pups unable to survive at sea. The Canadian Press reports, "
A marine mammal specialist for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently told The Canadian Press he also expects the death rate for seal pups to rise this year from its average of 15 per cent."

The Humane Society, which has always opposed the fur seal hunts, is stepping up their campaign to get the Canadian government to halt the impending hunts if, for no reason at all, but for the additional pressure it will place on fur seal populations already faced with higher mortality due to this unusual loss of winter sea ice.

Here's a video on the challenges facing Arctic sea ice that I assembled for Google Earth and InMER, a marine research and education organization.

Click here to read a current Humane Society press release on the issue.
Click here to learn more about the Humane Society's anti-seal hunt campaign.

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