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March 2004

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Harp Seals

By Kennedy Warne
I am floating in an undersea world of billowing ice clouds and shadowy canyons—the winter kingdom of Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence. Shafts of sunlight lance the surface waters only to be quenched by the gray depths. Translucent comb jellies drift past, slaves to the current.

Harp seals appear, ghostly torpedoes on the edge of visibility. Their hind flippers splay and fold like fans, propelling them with graceful, powerful strokes. A few come close, inspecting me with dark bulging eyes. One twists upside down, revealing the harp-shaped blotch on its back that gives these seals their name. I break the surface in a gap between floes. Female harp seals bob in the margarita slush, peering over the lip of the ice to check on their pups. The rhythmic rise and fall of their heads looks like pistons coupled to an invisible crankshaft.

It's mid-March, high season for harp seals. They have migrated 2,000 miles south from the Arctic to reach their traditional spring quarters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. All the big events of their lives—mating, giving birth, molting—happen here, where blizzards rake the frozen sea and currents crumple the floes into an icy Stonehenge.

I have come to the gulf to witness this southern sojourn of Pagophilus groenlandicus, the "ice-lover from Greenland." But there's another reason for being here. Forty years ago a bitter controversy broke out between Canadian sealers and animal-welfare groups over the hunting of baby harp seals. The harp seal pup, with its fluffy white coat and black pleading eyes, became the darling of the antisealing movement and a symbol of all that was wrong with human exploitation of nature.

After nearly two decades of fervent protest, the European Economic Community bowed to pressure from environmentalists and in 1983 banned the importation of whitecoat pelts and all harp seal products, a mandate that crippled the seal trade. For many the battle ended there: a victory for nature. But fur is back in fashion, and although the whitecoat pup is protected under Canadian law, the hunt for older pups is booming. In fact, more harp seals are taken today than at any other time in the past 35 years. The North Atlantic seal hunt has become the largest marine mammal hunt in the world.

Given this renewed pressure, how is the species faring today? Have protest and legislation secured the harp seal's future? Or is Pagophilus destined to go the way of the great whales, its surviving populations only pathetic remnants of a once prolific species?

True to the old adage, March 2003 comes in like a lion. Ontario residents shovel seven-foot snowdrifts to get out their front doors. Three of the Great Lakes freeze over, delaying the start of the shipping season. The Magdalen Islands, a fishhook-shaped archipelago in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is clenched in a fist of ice and shivers in below-zero temperatures.

From the air, during the 30-mile helicopter flight from the Magdalens to the harp seal breeding grounds, the gulf looks like the mother of all wedding cakes, the work of battalions of bakers who have heaped on swirling mountains of white frosting. My eyes strain to pick out the whelping patches: clusters of mothers and pups basking beside leads of open water. Frozen afterbirth and smudges of red on the ice show where pups have been born.

Sea ice is critical to harp seals for giving birth and nursing pups and, several weeks later, for molting. The ice has to be thick and stable enough to support the seals, but if it's too thick they can't keep their breathing holes open. If the ice lingers into spring, it can become jammed against the coast. Pups unable to reach open water to feed can be crushed between the grinding slabs.

Too little ice is also a problem. Some years the floes break up early, plunging young pups into the sea before they have enough blubber to withstand the cold water. An extremely light ice year can result in catastrophic mortality, and some scientists have warned that global warming could increase the frequency of light ice years. Six of the last nine winters were unusually mild, and if the trend continues the seals will suffer the consequences.

There is no lack of ice in 2003. Jumbled floes jut from a vast, wind-sculpted ice prairie. The yowling, mewing, gargling, and wailing of harp seal pups fills the air. Some scuffle across the ice, pushing up little bow waves of snow with their snouts. Others nestle in ice cradles formed by their own body heat. Many are spectacularly fat. They lie on the ice like portly powder puffs, their heads pulled back into their shoulders, fur fluffed up, eyes half closed and moist with tears; lacking the tiny ducts that remove excess tears, their eyes weep constantly. After a couple of weeks their silky white fetal hair—the lanugo—starts falling out, revealing a dappled gray coat beneath.

Stacking on fat is vital for these young pups. Although they can swim almost from birth, they need the thermal insulation of a thick blubber layer to survive in frigid seas. So during the first days of their lives, pups gorge themselves on one of the richest milks in all of nature, putting on as many as five pounds a day. At weaning—around ten to twelve days old—they weigh more than 70 pounds.

To the European settlers of the region, harp seals must have looked like barrels of lard, abundant and free for the taking. And take them they did. By the 1850s more than half a million harp seals—most of them whitecoat pups—were being killed during the annual hunting season. Oil, not fur, was the primary product. The seal oil of Newfoundland lubricated the sewing machines of England.

The fur itself didn't become popular until the late 1940s. Before then there was no technology to keep the luxuriant white lanugo from falling out of the dressed skin, so seal pelts were tanned into leather. After 1945, however, Norwegian advances in fur-dressing meant that the harp seal pelt could be marketed as a fur. Demand for the fashionable fur rose quickly, at a time when harp seal populations were already in decline. By 1972 the Newfoundland–Gulf of St. Lawrence harp seal stock stood at less than two million animals. In 1976, as debate over the hunt was heating up, seal scientist David Lavigne warned in this magazine that "the survival of the harp seal hangs in the balance."

His warning would become a call to arms. Two centuries after Moravian missionaries in Labrador chose the harp seal pup to explain the Lamb of God to the Inuit, who had never seen a sheep, environmental crusaders—alarmed by the seal's declining numbers and outraged that hunters were targeting pups not yet weaned from their mother's milk—vowed to stop the slaughter of the innocents.

Car license plates in Quebec—which includes the Magdalen Islands, or Îles de la Madeleine—bear the legend, Je me souviens, meaning "I remember." The Madelinots, as the 95 percent of islanders who are French-speaking call themselves, do not easily let go of their 250 years of history and traditions. They remember the dark days following 1755 when, fleeing deportation by the British, the islands' founding families made their way from what is now Nova Scotia to start a new life. Though farming folk, these exiled Acadians were forced to turn to the sea for sustenance. Today the fishing industry makes up 80 percent of the islands' economy. A thousand of the 13,000 islanders fish for a living, and a similar number process the catches of lobster, crab, herring, and mackerel.

Madelinot fishermen also remember the two decades of tribulation that began in the 1960s when antihunt campaigners, spearheaded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and later by Greenpeace, triggered the eventual collapse of the seal trade. Portrayed as murderers and barbarians, fishermen suffered the contempt of the masses as television brought graphic scenes from the ice fields of the North Atlantic into the living rooms of Europe and North America.

Taking part in what had been known as the greatest hunt in the world—an enterprise that in the 19th century had involved more than 13,000 men and 400 sailing ships—was no longer a matter of pride but a mark of shame. Once hailed as "Vikings of the ice," the sealers were now the scum of the earth. The Madelinots' cries of Nous ne sommes pas des bouchers! — We are not butchers! — sounded hollow when accompanied by photographs of upraised clubs and bloodstained ice.

Jocelyn Thériault was a youngster when the protests peaked. Now 34, he owns a one-third share in a 65-foot fishing boat, Manon Yvon. He, his brother, and a cousin fish for snow crab and redfish. They used to fish for cod, too, but in April 2003 the North Atlantic cod fishery, which had failed to recover despite closures and dramatically reduced harvests, was shut down indefinitely by the Canadian government.

The demise of the cod industry has given renewed purpose to modern-day harp seal hunters: The livelihood of fishermen like Thériault depends on harvesting whatever the sea has to offer—including seals. Since 1987, when Canada outlawed commercial hunting for whitecoat pups, the main focus of the hunt has been molted pups known as beaters—so named because they tend to thrash the water when they swim, not because the traditional method of killing them is with clubs. Today beater pelts can be worth 40 Canadian dollars or more to a hunter.

I meet Thériault at the wharf in Cap-aux-Meules, the commercial center of the islands. He and his crew are loading supplies for the seal hunt, set to begin in a couple of days, ice permitting. Like all fishermen in this region, he can fish only eight months of the year because the coast is icebound through the winter. When he can't fish, he collects unemployment. With a 1.5-million-dollar boat to pay off, four months is a long time without significant income—and a long time to be ashore if your life is the sea.

Thériault has been seal hunting for eight years. In a good year—navigable ice, accessible seals, firm prices for pelts and oil—he and his crew of 12 can jointly earn $150,000 during the spring hunt. As with most fishermen here, Thériault derives only about 5 percent of his earnings from harp seals. It doesn't sound worth the effort until you consider the other reason fishermen hunt seals: They argue that the animals compete for the very thing that puts croissants on the family table. In French, the harp seal is loup-marin de glace, sea wolf of the ice. As one Madelinot told me, "They don't eat turnips, that's for sure."

Biologists estimate that each year an adult harp seal devours more than a ton of fish—mostly capelin, sand lance, and arctic cod—and invertebrates such as crabs, shrimp, and krill. Harp seals are thought to account for more than 80 percent of the estimated four million tons of fish and zooplankton consumed by all seal species in the northwest Atlantic. In the fisherman's arithmetic, that equates to a lot of seafood not going into his nets. Cull the harp seal population, say fishermen, and you level the playing field.

Critics scoff at this logic. Given the myriad interactions between marine organisms, it is folly to suppose that culling one species will increase the population of another. Opponents accuse fishermen of wanting to play God with the resources of the sea. While the history of overexploited fisheries more than backs up this view, fishermen say they have learned from past mistakes. "I am a new generation of fisher," Thériault insists. "I don't want to kill all the seals, just make a fair play."

What constitutes fair play is ultimately a political decision. Out on the ice floes I join Mike Hammill, a seal biologist whose work helps the Canadian government manage its marine resources. "You picked a nice day for it," says Hammill, his frost-reddened face breaking into a grin. The temperature is 32°F, and the wind stings like peroxide.

Dotted about the ice, sleepy-eyed newborns nurse in utter contentment from mothers lying in Rubenesque repose. Along with whitecoat pups (which the Madelinots call blanchons, white ones) there are several "ragged jackets"—pups between 15 and 30 days old that are losing their baby fur on their way to becoming beaters. Some are nearing the end of the molt, the last of their white coats flaking off in swatches from the sleek gray fur beneath. Pups at this stage have been recently abandoned by their mothers and must fend for themselves. For now, they have little to fear from predators: Orcas, polar bears, and Greenland sharks take harp seals in the Arctic but don't follow them to their breeding grounds in the gulf.

Hammill, a senior scientist with Canada's Department of fisheries and Oceans (DFO), has been studying harp seals for more than 15 years. He and his colleague Garry Stenson have been working to produce a model of the harp seal population, based on such factors as how many seals are born each year, how many die, and how many are in each age group. The model assists the government in setting one supremely important number: the TAC, or total allowable catch. In the government's eyes, a fair TAC is one that maximizes the sealers' returns without compromising the harp seal stock. Invariably, sealers consider it to be too low and conservationists too high.

I watch Hammill as he creeps toward a resting female, carrying two aluminum poles with a piece of fishing net stretched between. Suddenly he breaks into a run, throws the net, then dives onto the startled animal. An assistant helps him flip the seal over (no easy matter, as adult females weigh around 280 pounds) and tie the ends of the poles together. Once pinned, the seal becomes as placid as her pup, which is watching from a few feet away. Using a block and tackle mounted on a tripod, Hammill weighs both mother and pup, then measures and tags them. After anesthetizing the mother, he extracts a tooth. Counting the layers of dentine is the most efficient way to determine the seal's age.

This work is part of an annual live-capture program designed to help fine tune the population model. By sampling a range of females of varying ages, Hammill and his colleagues hope to formulate a relationship between population density and reproductive rate, and also to find out what impact bad ice years have on the long-term fortunes of the seal herd.

Hammill says the DFO's management objective for harp seals is a long-term sustainable harvest. The idea is to use the TAC—broken down into quotas for each sealing area—to control the population. At the moment the department considers harp seals to be abundant, so it has set a relatively generous TAC—975,000 for the three years from 2003 to 2005. Hunters can take up to 350,000 seals during any two of those years, but the total for the three years cannot exceed 975,000.

If the quota is filled, it will drive the population down, Hammill says, but not too far down. To guard against overexploitation, the DFO has established benchmarks at 70 percent, 50 percent, and 30 percent of 5.5 million, the highest estimate of the population in recent times.

"The government is committed to keeping the population above the 70 percent benchmark of 3.85 million," Hammill says. "If it dips below that number, conservation measures such as lowering the TAC will follow. If the population hits the critical warning point—the 30 percent benchmark, or 1.65 million—we will shut the hunt down."

Right now the harp seal is the second most abundant seal in the world, behind the crabeater seal of Antarctica. The number of harp seals in the northwest Atlantic, currently estimated at 5.2 million, is three times higher than in the early 1970s. The most recent pup census, conducted in 1999, counted almost a million pups born that year.

It is too early to tell what effect the current quota levels will have, but in theory, given a healthy stock of long-lived adults (harp seals live for 30 years and start breeding between four and eight years old), juveniles can be hunted in relatively high numbers without jeopardizing the population. But opponents of the hunt say the DFO's management approach is based on shaky assumptions and accuse the government of taking unacceptable risks with a vulnerable species. "Remember," warns David Lavigne, author of the 1976 Geographic article, "the last time harp seal catches were this high, the population plummeted by more than half over 20 years."

The old adage proves right again: March 2003 goes out like a lamb. Temperatures are rising and the Îles de la Madeleine are thawing. Gobbets of ice fall from the power lines and explode in puffs of white on the tar roads. Diggers scoop ice away from boat-launch ramps and a mobile crane lifts craft that have been on blocks all winter back into the water. I linger over their names: Pelican, Sushi Provider, David's Last, Dickson's Dream. Madelinots call this time of year le reveil du printemps, the awakening of spring. For fishermen it's a release, a chance to feel salt wind on the face again and the throb of the engine beneath the deck.

At Cap-aux-Meules, Manon Yvon's berth is empty. Thériault and his crew are out there somewhere, ramming their way through the floes. But for smaller vessels the ice is too thick this year, and most will remain tied up. One boat, Frolic, will risk the sea and never return. Her crew will be rescued, but she will go down, another corpse for the "graveyard of the gulf."

Within two months, however, the gulf ice will have disappeared, flushed into the Atlantic. The harp seals will have gone too, their automatic pilots set to north for the journey back to the Arctic. The coming and going of ice, seals, and sealers has been happening for a long time in this part of the world. In the Magdalen Museum of the Sea, I come across a copper penny, struck during the early 1800s and used briefly as currency in the islands. One side depicts a seal, the other a cod—two commercial staples of Magdalen life. The coin carries the motto, "Success to the fishery"—a slogan that has become a mockery with the collapse of the commercial cod fishery.

Conversely the seal hunt has endured. Today's catches are approaching levels of those a century ago—between 200,000 and 300,000 a year, excluding the hundred thousand or so taken annually by sealers in Greenland. In 2002 the value of harp seal products landed in Canada exceeded 22 million Canadian dollars, the highest in recent memory. Most of the money is in the pelts, though there is still a multimillion-dollar market for harp seal oil. No longer used for sewing machines, the oil, now prized for its high content of omega-3 fatty acids, is processed into capsules and sold as a health supplement. Researchers have also developed a hand cream from the oil and are working on a protein derivative from seal meat.

Success on every front? Not quite, for quotas can't address the most fundamental question: Should seals be killed at all? And so the battle still rages between those who view sealing as a legitimate use of a renewable resource and those who believe seals, along with whales and dolphins, should be above exploitation. For now the Canadian government has opted for sustainable use, a decision that distresses nature lovers but that allows fishermen like Jocelyn Thériault to maintain a way of life they cherish.

Look at a harp seal and what do you see? Lamb of God or wolf of the sea? Nature's sanctity or nature's utility? Perhaps it is possible to see both. On the bridge of the Manon Yvon, tacked above the main window, is a small printed prayer with a silver crucifix dangling from it. Thériault's grandmother gave him the note when he launched the boat. The prayer is simple but suggests stewardship, the old-fashioned word for sustainability. "Lord, my vessel is small and your sea is vast," it says. "Help me this day, for the riches of the sea belong to you. Merci."


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