What’s Hitting Baby Harp Seals Hardest?

Hint: It’s not hunters.

killing baby harp seals
A new study finds ice melt is a greater threat to baby harp seals than adults. (Photo: Keren Su/Getty)
Richard Conniff is the author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth and other books.

In the late 1960s, one of the most sensational media campaigns ever launched targeted the commercial killing of harp seal pups in Canada’s Maritime Provinces. It had all the elements to elicit outrage: The pups themselves were plump little things with white fur and big glossy eyes, cute as a child’s stuffed animal. The hunters, on the other hand, looked brutal and anonymous, swinging their clubs down on the skulls of their victims, staining the ice with blood as they stripped off the precious fur, and lining up the carcasses like sardines in a tin.

The campaign provoked an international outcry and helped make its sponsor, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), one of the largest wildlife protection groups in the world. But it had little effect on the fate of the seals.

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans still grants permission to kill about 300,000 harp seals annually. Proponents of the continued killing argue that the hunt has deep cultural roots in the area, provides a small income to local residents, and helps reduce predation on cod and other commercial species as they slowly recover from decades of overfishing. IFAW, Greenpeace, and others counter that the hunt is cruel and that cod make up a relatively minor part of the harp seal’s diet. Meanwhile, through all the fury, the population of harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus, literally “the ice-lover from Greenland”) has remained stable, at about 6.9 million.

But a new study in the online journal PlosOne suggests that harp seals may be vulnerable to a far larger threat. A team of researchers at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment looked at the level of ice cover on the harp seal’s breeding grounds in eastern Canada over a 20-year period, from 1991 to 2010. In some years, says co-author David Johnston, the ice covered 60 to 70 percent of the available breeding grounds, and in other years just 10 percent. Overall, the trend since the 1970s has been a six percent decrease per decade in average ice cover.

The researchers then correlated that data with the number of young harp seals found stranded each year along the coast from Maine to North Carolina, and found “a strong and significant” connection.

In a harp seal breeding colony, mature females give birth in late February and they depend on stable ice to rear their single newborn. The female’s milk is 48 percent fat and helps the pup gain almost five pounds per day in the first 12 days of life. But the pup cannot swim or hunt for food on its own for seven or eight weeks. So the lack of ice, or an early melt, puts it in grave peril.

“When ice cover is very light, we tend to have more strandings,” says Johnston, “and it’s kind of evolved over time. We’ve seen fewer and fewer heavy ice years. And in the light ice years, lots of pups die. Now we’re trying to understand how these really dramatic changes are affecting the populations, and whether they are going to be there in ten or 20 years.” One possibility is that the seals will shift their breeding grounds northward. But there’s no evidence yet that this is happening. The new study says simply that “it is difficult to predict whether or not seals will be able to adapt at a rate which keeps pace with rapid changes in ice cover.”

Johnston’s study, which was partly funded by IFAW, has already led to renewed calls for an end to the harp seal hunt. But Johnston himself is agnostic about the hunt. “I’m a Canadian,” he explains. “I come from a country that has an interest in using its natural resources for various things. My interest is in sustainability.”

And in that sense, the new study, and the entire harp seal debate, go to one of the more troubling issues in all of wildlife conservation: It is part of our better nature to rise up in outrage when terrible things are being done to animals, and especially when those animals are incredibly cute.

But it can also be a distraction. It is just easier, and it feels so good, to spend our energy in self-righteous campaigning against a relatively small threat like the harp seal hunt. It is much harder to take on the larger challenge of saving harp seals by changing our own behavior—changing the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the long-distance travel we have come to regard as our right, and all the other profligate things we do that add to the deadly accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

So, sure, go ahead and protest. But let’s also keep our eye on the bottom line: Being clubbed over the head hasn’t been the end of the world for harp seals as a species.

Climate change easily could be.

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