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

By Meg Roberts

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)

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 currently down to about 14 per cent of its ice cover, according to the CIS, a contrast to the average ice cover for this time of year of about 35 per cent.

The numbers are stark, but aren’t without precedent.

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.
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 that 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 may 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.

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.

“It is a concern, seriously. 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 it’s not just the seals that he is concerned about 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, Labrador, 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 anymore ice in the forecast.

With so much variability this year, Leonard said it’s getting harder to do his job — 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.

via Labrador seal hunt largely sidelined as sea ice hits 50-year low | CBC News