Nfld. & Labrador·Thin Ice

Labrador seal hunt largely sidelined as sea ice hits 50-year low

Mina Campbell has been hunting seals each spring for 40 years, but hasn't made it out once yet this season, due to ice conditions never seen since record-keeping began.

Hunters worry about fate of seal pups as ice thins beneath them

A seal sunbathes on sea ice near Rigolet, Labrador. (Eldred Allen/Bird's Eye Inc)

Mina Campbell of North West River has been hunting seals each spring for 40 years, one of many who take to Labrador's ice by late April in an activity rooted in Indigenous culture for centuries.

But Campbell hasn't made it out once yet this season, due to the warm temperatures and lack of ice.

"The ice conditions are too iffy.… Even though it's a big part of our life in the spring, it's certainly not worth risking your life," said Campbell. 

That risk is also record-setting.

In the last week of April, the Canadian Ice Service recorded the lowest amount of sea ice in Labrador in its history of record-keeping, which dates back 50 years. The coast of northern Labrador is down to about 14 per cent of its ice cover, according to the CIS, a contrast with the average ice cover for this time of year of about 35 per cent. 

The numbers are stark.

Campbell said she's noticed in the last few years it seems like the ice is thawing up earlier. That causes trouble for the hunters, as they can only begin hunting the seals once they've grown big enough to eat.

The Inuit normally start hunting seals around mid- to late April after their pups have had time to grow underneath the snow. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

She said there are a few hunters who have caught some seals this season, but most people are sitting back and watching as dozens of seals make their way out of the snow onto the ice. 

"They are spying them from the shore, so the seal population is very good here, and especially this year because people aren't hunting them," Campbell said. 

Concerns for seal pups

Although there might not be a concern for population issues now, those thin ice conditions might be detrimental to seals in the future as climate change progresses.

That's a major concern for Derrick Pottle, a hunter in Rigolet, the southernmost community in Nunatsiavut, Labrador's Inuit territory.

Pottle said ringed seal are the most popular for Inuit to hunt, with their pups born on the ice under a thick layer of snow. 

With warming temperatures, that layer of snow is melting. That leaves newborns vulnerable to the cold and exposed to predators like crows and wolves. 

Rigolet hunter Derrick Pottle worries that melting snow will leave seal pups exposed to freezing temperatures and predators. (Eldred Allen/Bird's Eye Inc)

He also worries that as the ice starts breaking up earlier than normal, those newborn seals will not be strong enough to swim and survive in the water.

"I am concerned that a lot of these seals are not going to survive," he said.

Pottle was on the ice hunting about three weeks ago and said he was alarmed at how young some of the seals were that were emerging from underneath the melting snow. 

"They were very, very small. Some of them were just being born," he said.

Pottle said he's not just concerned about seals as climate change's effects become more evident along Labrador's coast. He wonders what will happen to other animals and fish species as the water warms up, noting that even one or two degrees in temperature could make a huge difference. 

A snowmobiler rides on ice near Rigolet in March. The coast's ice is thinner than it ever has been in the 50 years of the Canadian Ice Service's record-keeping. (Eldred Allen/Bird's Eye Inc)

Hazy predictions ahead

Ice data and temperatures are recorded and analyzed by the Canadian Ice Service, with clear trends emerging over time. 

"We are definitely seeing some big changes.… We've seen a lot of variability this year," said Doug Leonard, an ice forecaster with the CIS.

Leonard said Labrador is about four to six weeks ahead of where the temperatures and ice coverage would normally be, and it doesn't look like there is any more ice in the forecast.

With so much variability this year, Leonard said, it's getting harder to predict what will happen with the ice. 

While he can't attribute climate change to a single year, according to CIS records Labrador's ice has been thinning, and will see a continuation of warmer winters such as this one.

"We have seen a decrease in ice, but this year is definitely an anomaly," he said.


Thin Ice is a special CBC series about the changing climate along Labrador's north coast, and the Indigenous-led responses arising from it. Read more in this series here.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Meg Roberts is a video journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in St. John's. Email her at meg.roberts@cbc.ca.

With files from Labrador Morning

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