Lack of ice means fewer seal pups off the Magdalen Islands this year

When it's a good ice year, you can sometimes see a bank of harp seals off of the Magdalen Islands. But a warm winter and a lack of ice have shrunk the herd to about a fraction of its normal size.

Researcher says impact on overall herd limited, but ice patterns over time could be concern

Fewer baby seals are being born this winter in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence because of a lack of ice. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

When it's a good ice year, you can sometimes see harp seals lying in a herd that stretches out about 70 kilometres long and 20 kilometres wide off of the Magdalen Islands.

But this year's warm winter and lack of ice have shrunk the herd to a fraction of its normal size: just less than 10 kilometres long and only a couple of kilometres wide. 

​"We would expect something in the order of about 200,000 pups born in the southern gulf," said Mike Hammill, a research scientists with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Hammill said the harp seals born in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence make up only 30 per cent of the overall herd, with most of the pups born northeast of Labrador and Newfoundland. He added that many harp seals that normally birth in the southern Gulf region are making their way northeast to the other areas. 

Higher mortality rate likely

While much of the herd may be migrating, the mortality rate will likely be higher this year for harp seals near the Magdalen Islands. Unlike grey seals that can give birth on shores and islands, harp seals need to have their pups on ice for a month.

"It's initially for lactation, but also it's for resting because otherwise they become tired very quickly and then they drown," Hammill said.   

Despite the challenges this year, the marine mammal researcher said it may not have an impact on the herd. But several years in a row of poor ice could have consequences. 

"One bad ice year is not that important because you could say it's mortgaged over several years," he said. "It's more when you start to run into a lot of these bad ice years that it might be something for concern."

Hammill said 2010 and 2011 were bad ice years, 2012 was "OK" and 2014 and 2015 were good years.

With files from Radio-Canada

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