Harp seals

On my way to Tim Horton’s for my morning coffee and Timbits for Missy and Molly, my eye caught a strange black and white shape at the roadside.

Slowing down, I noticed it was a young, immature seal a long distance from home. It was probably a young harp seal. What was it doing this far from the ice floes of the Gulf of St. Lawrence? It was probably disoriented after following a river or small stream that flows into the gulf. The rest of the herd was way out on the ice that stretches all the way to the Magdalen Islands.

The harp seals have spent the summer season around Greenland and the islands of the Northwest Territories, beginning the southward migration in September. From mid-January on until late in the spring, vast ice floes cover large portions of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and its coastlines.

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It is this time of the year that the adult females come up on the ice and give birth to their young. The shelter of some upturned pans of ice give the pups shelter from the elements. The young seals are pure fluffy white and are often referred to “whitecoats.” The baby seals remain on the ice feeding on the rich mother’s milk (which is 10-15 times as rich as cow’s milk).

Weight is put on quickly and their white coats start to change colour to a mottled gray and black. As they grow and feed for themselves, their diet is thought to consist mainly of swimming crustaceans, capelin, and other schooling fish such as herring.

An adult seal will grow up to six feet in length and weigh up to 400 pounds. They are black faced, gray in colour, with a distinctive harp-shaped patch on the back, hence the name harp seals. As adults, their diet tends to be on bottom feeding fish, especially cod. With the passing of the “big ice season,” they slowly migrate farther north along the coasts of Labrador and Greenland.

The harp seals were the focus of an annual on-the-ice hunt until 1987 when the hunt was closed to the large vessels. For over 100 years, the sealing vessels left the ports of Newfoundland to take part in harvesting the “whitecoats.” The hunt only took place while the white fur of the “whitecoats” was at a premium. As many as 50,000 young seals were taken annually. The brutality of the hunt brought the world out on the ice to see the cruelty of the kill. The strength of the animal rights organizations soon put an end to the harvest.

Still the great ice floes cover large portions of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the north east coast of Newfoundland. Still the herds congregate on the ice in mid-winter and give birth to their young. The hunt still goes on at a much reduced scale. Still the fishermen complain about the size of the herd and the devastation it brings to fishery.

And still the problem is with us; to balance the population of a species with humanity’s tendency to harvest it.