The Gulf of St Lawrence is a large area of saltwater and is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by the Cabot Strait in the southeast and the Strait of Belle-Isle to the north. Surrounded by land masses and islands from five provinces, the salt water, sea ice and rich feeding area has been a nursery and home to harp seals for generations.
See the map of this area from the Government of Canada.
The harp seals migrate from the Canadian Arctic and Greenland in December and give birth to their pups in February and March on ice that traditionally forms in this area. This ice serves as a birthing platform and place for the young “whitecoat seals” to nurse, grow, learn to swim and become independent. The female seals look for ice that is about 30 cm thick and about 35 meters in size.
Built into their DNA the female seals “know” that smaller ice flows can be broken up by waves or storms and would toss the young seals into the ocean where they may tire and drown. Similarly, when the ice is too thin and unstable it, again, may break up by rough seas and be unsuitable as a birthing platform. The ice has to be just right.
The annual seal hunt still takes place and the government of Canada has established an allowable catch of 400,000 harp seals for this 2021 season. Attempts to reduce this harvest began decades ago with some success.
In the meantime, ecotourism has become an important source of income for many hotels and helicopter companies operating near the Iles-de-la-Madeleine. People from all over the world come to this area to stay and visit ice floes to see these “whitecoat” baby seals.
Guidelines for photographing the pups require maintaining some distance to avoid encounters that could harm either the people or the seals and this observation season would normally last four or five weeks.
In recent years, however, the circumstances have changed. Since 2010 there have been five winters where there was little ice in the Gulf because of unseasonably warm temperatures. This has resulted in a decrease in tourism and loss of income to many. According to Ariane Berube, the sales director for the Chateau Madelinot hotel on Quebec’s Magdalen Islands [or Iles-de-la-Madeleine], there was no season in 2021 and the seal pup observation season was cancelled.
In Labrador as well, the seal hunt was a bust this year as sea ice hit a 50 year low. Either no ice or ice too thin, made the conditions unsafe for travel and hunting. At the end of April, the Canadian Ice Service recorded the lowest amount of sea ice in its history of record-keeping for this area.
These warmer air and water temperatures, and loss of and/or thinning of sea ice, are consistent with global warming and climate change. Carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, has reached new highs in the atmosphere of more than 417 ppm [parts per million] and average temperatures worldwide have increased.
The scientific career of Raymond N. Johnson Ph.D., spanned 30 years in research and development as an organic/analytical chemist; he is currently founder and director of the Institute of Climate Studies USA [www.icsusa.org].