The ice conditions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence could put thousands of harp seal pups in jeopardy, while grey seals in the Northumberland Strait appear to have adapted to changing winter weather patterns.

A team from Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been conducting a seal survey over the last couple of weeks, taking off by helicopter from the Charlottetown Airport.

"Our main interest this year has been to try to find out where the seals are pupping and to get an idea of the timing of pupping," said biologist Mike Hammill.

Harp seal pups on shore in Newfoundland in 2010

Female harp seals tend to abandon their pups if born on land, which leads to a high mortality rate. This photo is from Newfoundland and Labrador in 2010 when there was a lack of ice in the Gulf. (Submitted by DFO)

Grey seals adapting to ice

The grey seals are the first to pup around P.E.I. — at the end of January — and biologists are observing "a lot less ice."

"If we go back into the 1990s, almost 100 per cent of the pups were born on the ice between Nova Scotia and P.E.I.," said Hammill.

Grey seals pupping on Pictou Island

There is a large colony of grey seals having their pups on Pictou Island because of light ice conditions in the Strait. (Submitted by DFO)

"This year, and for the last two or three years, it's been down around one per cent of the pups are born on the ice and the remaining pups are born on the islands in the Strait," he said, including a large colony of grey seals on Pictou Island.

"It's an interesting species because it's one of the few that will pup either on the ice or pup on land," he said.


Grey seals will pup on land or on ice and seem to have adapted to the changing ice conditions in the Northumberland Strait. (Submitted by Pierres-Yves Daoust)

However, the grey seals that tried to pup on the ice in the Strait this year have not fared well.

"We've flown over one day and seen the animals and then we've gone back and all the ice has disappeared so those pups have probably drowned," said Hammill.

Young grey seal

A young grey seal on the ice. Grey seals have adapted to the light ice and are choosing to pup on islands in the Northumberland Strait. (Charles Caraguel)

Harp seal pups need ice to survive

The biologists will resume their work at the end of February when the harp seals have their pups.

"That species is quite different in that they do not seem to be able to adapt to pupping on land, they seem to require ice for pupping," explained Hammill.

When harp seals pup on land, the females tend to abandon the pups after a few days.

"Usually in these conditions, the eagles will get the pups, the seagulls, the coyotes," said Hammill.

"The best thing is to leave them alone and hopefully the female will stick around for a while and stick with the pup."


Light ice conditions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence could put thousands of harp seal pups in jeopardy. (Submitted by DFO)

"This year we do not have much ice in the Gulf [of Saint Lawrence] at all so we expect to find animals along the north side of P.E.I. and the coast of New Brunswick," he said, adding that the seals will sometimes head back to Newfoundland if they can't find ice in the Gulf.

The lack of ice is bad news for the harp seals, according to Hammill, because they have a high mortality rate when born on shore.

He predicts thousands could die, similar to 2011. To put that in perspective, Hammill says 200 thousand harp seal pups are born in the southern Gulf, and usually have about a 50 per cent mortality rate in their first year even when ice conditions are good.

Curious pup

Poor ice conditions in 2013 forced seals around P.E.I. to the shore. This pup is curious about this pebble. (Submitted by Natalie Loo)

Hooded seals can be 'quite aggressive'

There are two other species of seals seen around P.E.I., including the smaller harbour seals which breed in the summer.

A Harbour seal pup on Sable Island, Nova Scotia

A harbour seal pup on Sable Island, N.S. The harbour seals have their pups in the summer. (Submitted by Pierre-Yves Daoust )

Then there is the hooded seal, which is around the same size as the grey seal, and has pups with a blue-ish fur.

Hooded seal

DFO biologist Mike Hammill warns Islanders to stay away from hooded seals which can be 'quite aggressive' but could have their pups on land if the ice drifts in to shore. (Submitted by DFO)

"You have to be careful with them," warned Hammill.

He says hooded seals also prefer to pup on the ice but, if the ice drifts up on shore, will stick around for a day or so.

"These animals can be quite aggressive and they can move quickly and they leave a really nasty bite so people should stay away from them."

PEI seal survey crew and helicopter

This team from Fisheries and Oceans Canada flies out of Charlottetown to conduct seal surveys around P.E.I. (Submitted by DFO)