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March 10, 2010

Melting Out from Under Them

Vanishing ice means many harp seal pups are facing death even before the hunters arrive

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Few seal pups can survive the loss of sea ice. Chad Cisneros/HSUS

by Rebecca Aldworth

Each year, mother harp seals make an arduous migration from Greenland to Canada in search of sea ice that forms off the east coast. There, they give birth to their pups in the spring, forming the spectacular harp seal nursery.

I remember the first time I visited those ice floes 12 years ago. We travelled by helicopter out into the ocean, and landed on what seemed like a different planet. Sea ice stretched in all directions for miles into the horizon. The ice was so strong it felt as if you could drive a truck across it.

Days ago, I flew over that same area to find the harp seal nursery. But our search was in vain—instead of solid sea ice, we saw nothing but open ocean. Where we should have found hundreds of thousands of newborn seals, we saw only a few dozen, clinging to tiny, melting pans of ice.

This year, sea ice simply didn’t form in key seal birthing areas. For ice breeding harp seals, it is a disaster. When the sea ice doesn’t form, many mothers are often forced to abort their pups in the water. When the ice that does form is too thin and fragile, pups are forced into the open water before they are old enough to survive there.

Environment Canada confirms 2010 has seen the lowest sea ice formation on record off Canada’s east coast, and we are expecting mass seal pup mortalities as a result. The situation is urgent: the lack of sea ice this year is a part of a larger climate change trend—off Canada’s east coast, 21 of the past 40 years had sea ice cover below the average for that period, and the past 15 years have all had markedly below average ice cover.

Speak up for seals: Tell Canada's government what you'll do if it ends the hunt.

The harp seals’ sea ice habitat is literally melting from under them.

We filmed everything, and we took our images back to Ottawa. There, we were joined by Senator Mac Harb at a press conference calling for the immediate cancellation of the 2010 seal hunt. You would think that a responsible government would take immediate action to protect the surviving seal pups. Instead, Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea has refused to cancel the 2010 commercial seal hunt.

It was heartbreaking to witness these few helpless newborn pups on such fragile pieces of ice this year. I know that in the coming weeks, storms and ocean currents will likely destroy what is left of the ice, and these baby seals will face overwhelming obstacles to their survival. It is unbearable to think that those that live through this disaster may be clubbed and shot to death in the largest slaughter of marine mammals on earth.

Canadians and people around the world will not tolerate kicking a species when it is down. We simply have to protect the survivors of this ice disaster. Please stand with Humane Society International and the Humane Society of the United States in calling on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to cancel the 2010 commercial seal hunt.

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