At least five headless seals have been found over the past few weeks on the banks of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula between Ste-Anne-des-Monts and Mont-Louis.
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Josiane Cabana, spokeswoman for the Quebec emergency network for sea mammals, said it’s hard to identify what species of seals has been found because they are missing their heads.
'They’re very opportunistic feeders and it would make no sense whatsoever for a shark to eat only the head.' - Jeffrey Gallant, Quebec Shark Observatory
She also said that because no complete necropsy will be conducted, it is impossible to determine the seals’ cause of death. She pointed out that the cuts that severed their heads appear to be fresh and also precise.
Cabana said she her organization is considering several hypotheses, but believes it could be the work of a predator — human or otherwise — or perhaps a boat propeller.
"This is really unusual, to find that kind of number of carcasses," Cabana said.
She said finding five decapitated seals in the same area within two weeks is suspicious.
One scenario experts are seriously considering, however, is the return of the great white shark to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Great white shark making a comeback
According to a study released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this month, the great white shark is making a comeback in the western side of the northern Atlantic Ocean after a previous population decline.
White shark abundance in the western North Atlantic declined by an estimated 73 per cent from the early 1960s to the 1980s, the report says. Shark abundance is now only 31 per cent down from its historical high estimate in 1961, the report states. The report does not provide a local estimate for the great white shark population, which some scientists say is between 3,000 and 5,000 animals.
Chris Harvey-Clark, a veterinarian and amateur underwater photographer at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, told regional newspaper Le Soleil that he spotted a great white shark in the waters surrounding P.E.I. last summer.
Harvey-Clark has studied sharks for 25 years and is convinced what he saw was a great white shark. He has also recently noticed turtles with neck bites from a large predator that could also be from the same kind of shark.
Great white sharks often venture into shallow waters to find prey, like seals.
Sharks would have polished seals off
Jeffrey Gallant, a scientist with the Quebec Shark Observatory, said it's highly unlikely any kind of shark is responsible for these decapitations.
"They’re very opportunistic feeders and it would make no sense whatsoever for a shark to eat only the head and not feed upon the entire carcass when they don’t get to feed that often, or at least not every day. So to just find the heads missing does not make a lot of sense," Gallant said.
Gallant also said it was a bit early for great white sharks in this part of the Atlantic and its tributaries, and besides, he said, “As far as we know, no white shark has been seen in the St. Lawrence for many, many years."
The great white shark is classified as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Cabana said anyone who finds dead seals or other sea mammals and large fish in Quebec should take photos and call 1-877-722-5346.