Seal pups beached in ice-free Gulf

An exceptional lack of sea ice on the Gulf of St. Lawrence this winter has left seal mothers with few places to bear their young or to feed their pups.

Pups seen on Quebec shores, as far north as Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula

An exceptional lack of sea ice on the Gulf of St. Lawrence this winter has left seal mothers with few places to bear their young or to feed their pups.

The conditions have led to numerous sightings of fuzzy, days-old critters wallowing on beaches, where many will die.

Some of those seals are being born on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula.

"We've got lovely weather here and the shoreline is peppered with seals," retired school teacher Oswald Gould said Wednesday, in Bear Cove, western Newfoundland, near St. Barbe. "You can see the young ones being born. They are pupping. Right in by the seashore."

On the Quebec shores of the gulf, some people have even carted the big-eyed creatures, which weigh between 10 and 20 kilograms depending on the species, back home where they try to nurse them to health, de la Cheneliere said Tuesday.

But she said human interaction can add stress to the situation and diseases can be spread to and from the seals.

Her organization has received five direct reports of young harp or hooded seal pups marooned on Quebec's North Shore, Îles-de-la-Madeleine and the Gaspé Peninsula. They have also heard many second-hand accounts of sightings along the shoreline.

The harp seal pups are known for their big, black eyes and fluffy white coats, while the young hooded seals can be identified by their dark, blue-grey fur and white bellies.

Neither the hooded nor the harp seals found off Quebec's shores are listed as at-risk species, but both can be hunted seasonally in the province with a permit.

De la Cheneliere said a couple of the would-be rescuers have made inquiries on that very subject.

"Some of them have been asking if they could nurse them to life, [but] then when they understood the implications and why it wasn't a good idea, they asked if they could get the coat," she said.

With the unusual shortage of ice on the Gulf this year, de la Cheneliere's group is predicting higher mortality rates for young seals.

Still, not every beached pup perishes on the shore — some find their way back to the water and survive, she said.

A marine mammal specialist for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently told The Canadian Press he also expects the death rate for seal pups to rise this year from its average of 15 per cent.

But Mike Hammill doesn't believe the added deaths would have a major impact on the Eastern Canada seal populations, which number about seven million in total.

An Environment Canada ice forecaster recently said the sea-ice levels recorded in the Gulf this winter are about as low as any readings since the 1960s.

Earlier this week, Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said poor ice conditions may cause the cancellation of this year's Gulf of St. Lawrence seal hunt. It usually begins at the end of March.

With files from CBC News