Will low sea ice threaten harp seals & polar bears on Canada’s East Coast this year?

Reposted from Polar Bear Science

Posted on March 11, 2021 | 

In early February this year, sea ice was much lower than usual along the Labrador coast and virtually non-existent in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which are two important pupping habitats for North Atlantic harp seals. The picture would have been very bleak for harp seal pups and the Davis Strait polar bears that depend on them for food if ice hadn’t expanded and thickened by early March – but it did. Past experience suggests that harp seals that usually whelp in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where ice is still well below average this year, will move to ice off Southern Labrador (‘the Front’) to have their pups.


There is no way to sugar-coat this: there wasn’t much ice off the East Coast in early February, which was shaping up to be as bad or worse than the recent low-ice year of 2011. Below is the weekly ‘departure from normal’ ice chart from the Canadian Ice Service for the week of Feb 1, which shows a lot of area normally covered in ice at this time of year (red) that was still open water:

However, there was ice further north that has now moved down the Labrador coast from Davis Strait (see below):

At 10 March, there is still much less ice than usual but it appears to be adequate at the Front (southern Labrador coast) for harp seals to have their pups.

However, the pupping grounds won’t be spreading out across the north coast of Newfoundland as they usually do – there simply isn’t the ice there for it:


The timing sequence for harp seal pupping season in the North Atlantic is White Sea (late February); Gulf of St. Lawrence, aka the “Gulf” (early March, mean 5 March); Labrador/Newfoundland, aka the “Front” (mid to late March, mean 12 March); East Greenland around Jan Mayen Island, aka the “West Ice” (late March to early April). The Jan Mayen/West Ice region is the furthest north that harp seals pup, breed and moult.

Sea ice in the Gulf the week of 8 March 2021 below is not really thick enough for harp seals. They need first year ice (green on the chart), which is sorely lacking in the Gulf this year:

No difference has been found between harp seals at the Gulf and those at the Front, so together they are treated as one population for management purposes (Sergeant (1991; Stenson 2014). Harp seals are currently more abundant than they have been for decades and are still increasing. Below is a graph showing changes in NE Atlantic harp seal numbers between 1952 and 2019 (DFO 2020):


According to Sergeant (1991: 116) :

“…it is possible to categorize the type of ice used by harp seals for whelping (Fig. 127). This is medium winter ice in late February with 6 to 8/10 ice cover, i.e. it must be strong enough but have enough open leads for the seals to penetrate it.” [my bold]

Sergeant (1976:98, 38) pointed out that ice in the Gulf is formed in situ and usually only gets about 40-50cm thick, whereas the ice at the Front is thick first year ice with origins in the far north. This makes Gulf of St. Lawrence ice formation much more susceptible to local conditions (warm OR cold) and thus, the highly variable sea ice conditions are not new (Johnston et al. 2005), a fact corroborated by reports by early 20th century sealers from 1924-1941 (Ryan 2014).

Sergeant (1991: 31) made this point:

Greatest year-to-year changes are seen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the southern margin of the range, where ice in any one season may be thick or almost absent. [my bold]


What do harp seals do when ice conditions are poor in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, as has happened often in the past? Sergeant (1991:56) said this:

In 1981, with almost no ice in the Gulf, mortality of at least several hundred young and tens of adults was seen on the north shore beaches of Prince Edward Island….

Sergeant (1982) found that ice conditions affected whelping patterns markedly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1953, 1969 and 1981, or about one year in ten. In 1969 at least, ice conditions at the Front and in the Strait of Belle Isle were light also and would have allowed adult females which had not whelped in the Gulf to search northward for ice; some may have done so.

[in 1969] There was no ice in the Gulf except in Northumberland Strait and shore ice on the north coast of Prince Edward I. It was generally agreed that no more than 40 000 animals whelped here… The number at that time expected to whelp in the southern Gulf was ca. 100 000.

Probably, the remainder searched for ice, and finding none in the northern Gulf, passed through the Strait of Belle Isle and whelped together with the Front herd on the coast of Labrador at Hamilton Inlet.

In 1981, however, although ice was of minimal extent and thickness in the Gulf, harp seals whelped off the west coast of the Magdalen Is. and drifted to the north coast of Prince Edward I. Here storms destroyed the small amount of ice and young harp seals died due to starvation and loss of body reserves (Dr. J.R. Geraci, in litt.).

Under unusually heavy ice conditions, it is not possible for harp seals to move from the Front to the Gulf before whelping, since the Strait of Belle Isle is then blocked by ice. Whelping merely occurs further south along the east coast of Newfoundland.” [my bold]

However, polar bears have rarely penetrated into the Gulf in recent heavy ice years: they stick to eating seal pups on the ice at the ‘Front’ off Newfoundland and Labrador.


The worst year for low ice on the east coast in recent decades was in 2011 (Stenson et al. 2015), see below, for the week of 31 January:

Comparing the above to this year for the week of 1 Feb (below) shows the remarkable similarity:


Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) 2012. Current status of northwest Atlantic harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus). Science Advisory Report 2011/070.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada DFO. 2014. Status of Northwest Atlantic harp seals, Pagophilus groenlandicus. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Sci. Advis. Rep. 2014/011.

DFO. 2020. 2019 Status of Northwest Atlantic Harp Seals, Pagophilus groenlandicus. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Sci. Advis. Rep. 2020/020. http://www.isdm-gdsi.gc.ca/csas-sccs/applications/Publications/result-eng.asp?params=0&series=7&year=2020 PDF here.

Johnston, D.W., Friedlaender, A.S., Torres, L.G., Lavigne, D.M. 2005. Variation in sea ice cover on the east coast of Canada from 1969-2002: climate variability and implications for harp and hooded seals. Climate Research 29:209-222.

Kovacs, K.M. 2015. Pagophilus groenlandicus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T41671A45231087. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-4.RLTS.T41671A45231087.en

Ryan, S. 2014. Appendix 3: Chafe’s “Notes of the Voyages” 1924-1941, In: The Last of the Ice Hunters: An Oral History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt, pg. 445-457. Flanker Press, St. John’s. [Contains critical notes about ice conditions between 1924 and 1941 and where harp seals were found in those years]

Sergeant, D.E. 1976. History and present status of populations of harp and hooded seals. Biological Conservation 10:95-118.

Sergeant, D.E. 1991. Harp Seals, Man and Ice. Canadian Special Publication of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 114. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa.

Stenson, G.B. 2014. The status of harp and hooded seals in the North Atlantic. Report presented at the Scientific Council Meeting, June 2014. Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization SCR Doc. 14/026, Serial No. N6321.

Stenson, G.B., Buren, A.D. and Koen-Alonso, M. 2015. The impact of changing climate and abundance on reproduction in an ice-dependent species, the Northwest Atlantic harp seal, Pagophilus groenlandicus. ICES Journal of Marine Science 73(2):250-262. http://icesjms.oxfordjournals.org/content/73/2/250

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a happy little debunker
March 12, 2021 2:15 pm

I pity the loss of all the penguins of the Artic – I mean those guys just didn’t stand a chance…

Ron Long
Reply to  a happy little debunker
March 12, 2021 2:49 pm

Yea, but what about the polar bears in Antarctica? What next?

Reply to  Ron Long
March 12, 2021 9:51 pm

Clear observational evidence of the huge extinction crisis caused by climate change.

Reply to  a happy little debunker
March 12, 2021 2:50 pm

I suppose you mean Pinguinus impennus. No they they didn’t stand a chance. The slaughter was as brutal as for the passenger pigeon or the Atlantic cod.

March 12, 2021 2:22 pm

This sounds a lot like farming–too wet, too dry, low prices,…..

Rory Forbes
Reply to  ResourceGuy
March 12, 2021 2:41 pm

If conditions in nature were always “ideal” (by human standards) the planet’s resources would have been depleted millions of years ago.

Reply to  Rory Forbes
March 12, 2021 5:03 pm


I remember David Suzuki pointing out that we were doomed because of our exponential growth.

It seems to me that Suzuki is a specialist in fruit flies. Perhaps he could explain why we aren’t buried 10,000 feet deep in fruit flies because of their exponential growth.

The Earth has experienced resource depletion. There was the Archean Nickel Famine that led to the Great Oxygen Catastrophe and the first mass extinction. Horrors upon horrors. Of course, we wouldn’t be here if those things hadn’t happened so we should be filled with guilt at the fate of our single celled brothers.

Thomas Malthus believed that humanity would go extinct because of resource depletion. Buckminster Fuller pointed out that, if a resource became scarce, people would substitute different materials and/or develop technology that got around the problem.

We’re still here and thriving as never before. Malthus was wrong and Fuller was right. It’s another of those things the Marxists don’t understand.

Rory Forbes
Reply to  commieBob
March 12, 2021 5:40 pm

As you already know, but I will state nevertheless; like Lamarkian evolutionary theory, much loved by Stalin’s pet agronomist, Trofim Lysenco, the Malthusian model is much beloved by modern Marxists like Suzuki and other ideologues like Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren (Obama and O’Biden’s science advisors). These people also have pushed or still toy with eugenics. These ideas have spread to pseudo-intellectuals like Bill Gates and so many other powerful people. It all boils down to population management or even worse limitation. The late Maurice Strong (father of Rio 92 and Agenda 21) provided the UN with various means to use these theories. The IPCC is part of that.

These people have all turned out to be dangerous frauds. Oh, there’s so much more … but you already know that.

Reply to  Rory Forbes
March 12, 2021 7:32 pm

Yes but not enough people know it … yet.

There is a ground swell of actual intellectuals, Jordan Peterson, Steven Pinker, John McWhorter, the Weinsteins, Michael Shellenberger, etc. etc. These people have an audience of millions. There is a huge popular thirst for actual intelligent thought, not just the pap doled out by the woke.

Thanks to the internet, actual intellectuals are available to everyone.

For example, I just stumbled over this video. It’s a discussion between linguists Steven Pinker and John McWhorter. Holy smokes! (it’s nearly two hours long so don’t expect instant gratification)

Among the things they discuss are that Noam Chomsky (whose politics are unfortunate) took B.F. Skinner to pieces in an intellectually rigorous manner and spat him out. It’s been called the intellectual debate of the 20th century and I’m just finding out about it now. Damn.

The postmodern, Marxist, Social Justice Warrior scum would have us believe that everything is a social construct. Actual intellectuals like Peterson and Chomsky point out that there is such a thing as human nature, and we ignore it at our peril.

Rory Forbes
Reply to  commieBob
March 12, 2021 9:33 pm

The postmodern, Marxist, Social Justice Warrior scum would have us believe that everything is a social construct.

Many years ago when my wife was back at school to do her masters, she was forced to take a sociology course which … as it happened, included a section on the Haida (of the, then, Queen Charlotte Isles.). I had lived and worked there for several years as a logger. She was directed to do a term paper on Haida culture. Great, we thought.

She, asked me to help her out, since I knew the place well, including many of the carvers and important families. I thought it was a brilliant paper c/w drawn illustrations, photos and even some 1st hand accounts from locals … real sociology gold. She got a low pass …. “WHAT??? a PASS”, I said. How was that even possible? Well, apparently she just didn’t understand the magic accomplishments of CULTURE. She was accused of environmental imperative rather than the properly accepted “cultural imperative” that was the basis of virtually everything, from art to architecture and food choices.

I went ballistic. I doubt if there was ever a culture that trumpeted environmental imperative more plainly than the Haida. They’re a maritime culture with vast abundance of sea life. Their architecture is the iconic use of cedar planks, massive cedar beams and totem poles of, you guessed it RED CEDAR. Their entire lives, from art to food, stories and even religion, not to mention their creation myths, are filled with the very obvious natural bounty of Haida Gwai … salmon, halibut, stone, and cedar trees. But to hell with that … she was expected to believe all that was just fortuitous chance, subordinate to their “rich” culture which led them to incorporate the obvious into their culture.

Sorry for the length … but as you know, the culture fetishists have only gotten worse and that was over 40 years ago.

Among the things they discuss are that Noam Chomsky (whose politics are unfortunate) took B.F. Skinner to pieces in an intellectually rigorous manner and spat him out.

It seems we share some common web destinations and thanks for adding some more sources. I’m going to enjoy the link you provided. I have followed Noam Chomsky’s brilliant rise and sad downfall into Neo-Marxist psychobabble.

Reply to  Rory Forbes
March 13, 2021 2:24 am

re. the environmental imperitive

Pinker and McWhorter talk about languages that have no concept of ‘in front of’ or ‘behind’, just north, south, east, and west.

Such languages evolve in specific environments where directionality is in-your-face obvious. When the people move to other areas where directionality isn’t obvious, they use the concepts of ‘in front’ and ‘behind’ just like everyone else.

Conventional ‘wisdom’ (ie. psychobabble) is that language influences thought. Apparently actual science says different.

McWhorter has written The Language Hoax, which will probably be my next read.

Lee Scott
Reply to  Rory Forbes
March 14, 2021 5:47 am

I, too, took a few sociology courses way back when, and I remember doing a paper on some pet theory or another that the professor was clearly pushing us to accept. In order to show that I clearly understood the concept and the arguments, I laid out the theory just as he taught it, but then I proceeded to disagree with it, and offered my own interpretations.

That was a huge mistake. I got something like a D- on the paper, along with a bunch of snide comments. At that point I realized that indoctrination was the goal, not education. And that if I expected to pass the course, I had better toe the line.

Reply to  Rory Forbes
March 12, 2021 5:14 pm

Evolution is the same everywhere, whether animals, machines, jobs, businesses, mutual aid societies, political parties — all require volatility to adapt to changing external conditions. The idea that species must be preserved is right up there with preserving manufacturing jobs, small farms, public schools, historic buildings, and everything else.

Reply to  Felix
March 12, 2021 5:42 pm

Unbridled chaos is fatal.
Stasis is fatal.
We need habitable order and enough chaos to keep the system refreshed.

People who insist that nothing changes are idiots.
People who think we can get away with tearing everything down willy-nilly are also idiots.

Reply to  commieBob
March 12, 2021 10:00 pm

Evolution is not chaos.

Reply to  Felix
March 12, 2021 11:26 pm

 Someone, I’m sure, once pointed out that words matter. What that often signifies is that words have particular meaning. Using them outside of that meaning, while it might be the evolution of language, isn’t successful communication. Chaos is a deterministic process in the language of mathematics and science but often considered as random and/or destructive in colloquial language. Which do you think fits the concept of evolution?

Reply to  Felix
March 13, 2021 1:53 am

Evolution is a process that works in the face of chaos.

Jeff Alberts
March 12, 2021 3:02 pm

There is no way to sugar-coat this:”

Why would there be a need to? Are we still under the mistaken impression that everything happening now is unprecedented? Life goes on, and on, and on.

Curious George
Reply to  Jeff Alberts
March 12, 2021 3:24 pm

Bears, seals, and penguins should move to Texas.

Reply to  Curious George
March 12, 2021 6:45 pm

😂 Texas is a hot & dry city that is packed to the brim with houses. I’m pretty sure these seals & polar bears wouldn’t survive a Second

Reply to  Mthobisi Magagula
March 14, 2021 9:38 am

Texas is a large state not a city, with lots of wide open spaces. The other commenter was making a joke using the recent freeze up crisis the Texans faced.

Reply to  Curious George
March 14, 2021 8:34 am

Oh my!

Reply to  Jeff Alberts
March 12, 2021 9:41 pm

On the other side, The Sea of Okhotsk extent is above every year back to 2005 except 2012 and 2019.

Baffin Bay is very much on the low side of the last 15 years.

These are regular fluctuations. Swings and roundabouts

Last edited 29 days ago by fred250
March 12, 2021 7:25 pm

A bounty on polar bears would improve the harp seal population immediately.

March 12, 2021 9:38 pm

The Dorsett people are thought to have been destroyed by a lost of sea ice during the MWP. They lived off the seals.


john K. Sutherland.
Reply to  Joel
March 13, 2021 5:27 am

Surely, helpless seal pups are much easier to hunt on a shoreline than on thousands of hectares of ice.

Climate believer
March 13, 2021 12:45 am

What will be tragic is the way the media muppets will spin out any images of seal deaths to confirm some theory or other about mass extinction. No context whatsoever.

Extremist extinction nut jobs will be brought out of their basement to state that this is more evidence for their cataclysmic doom mongering.

March 13, 2021 1:07 am

Yes. and later the early and rapid retreat of ice off Svalbard, in the Barents, along the Alaskan and Siberian Coasts will, as it has done for the last decade, harm the walrus and polar bear populations.

Reply to  griff
March 13, 2021 6:00 am

Huhuhuhu, seaice disappears, from one day to the other, never will come back, huhuhuhu

David A
Reply to  griff
March 13, 2021 7:00 am

Population increases are indications of what crisis.

Reply to  griff
March 13, 2021 12:15 pm

Another evidence free comment from Griff, why can’t you do more than a dead on arrival drive by posting?

Reply to  griff
March 13, 2021 4:16 pm

Pure delusions and fallacies.
giffie ignores the walrus and polar bear population explosions. Even PBI has to admit the polar bear and walrus populations expanded almost everywhere.

Reply to  griff
March 14, 2021 1:39 am


Svalbard ice was earlier this year than several recent years. This was pointed out to you several time. 1922, no sea ice around Svalbard even in summer !!

But FACTS are unimportant to you, aren’t they griff.. to be IGNORED at whim.

Siberian and Alaskan coast have plenty of sea ice

FAR MORE than for nearly ALL of the last 10,00 years

Your deep-seated CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL has to cease, griff, it makes you look like a total idiot !

Rich Davis
March 13, 2021 5:03 am

Missing person report – put out a BOLO on griff. Fifteen hours elapse on a low sea ice story and not a peep? How is that possible?

Reply to  Rich Davis
March 13, 2021 5:20 am

Nope he finally turned up must be running his house on renewables and had lost power. Apparently the bears and walrus are still suffering and need to be put out of their misery.

john K. Sutherland.
March 13, 2021 5:21 am

Seals, will still give birth… if not on ice, then ashore. PBs still will eat. Better hunting on a narrow shore. Whoopee!

Reply to  john K. Sutherland.
March 14, 2021 8:37 am

Exactly. Nature will take care of itself.

March 13, 2021 6:19 am

Hmm – the word “no” springs to mind

Al Miller
March 13, 2021 7:46 pm

Gosh what did polar bears, seals, corals and well, etc., etc. do in past ice free eras? Oh I see it only matters if you can blame my Suv. It never was about climate was it.

Reply to  Al Miller
March 14, 2021 1:41 am

“do in past ice free eras?”

As in MOST of the last 10,000 years..

Funny that, how can there be so many polar bears now,..

…. when they all died off from basically no sea ice during the first few thousand years of the Holocene. !

March 14, 2021 9:00 am

‘There’s no ice’: warming seas chill Quebec’s seal tourism | Environment | The Guardian

For the fifth time since 2010, a lack of ice means no visitors and an unstable future for the ice-dependent harp seal’

(though is anybody travelling for tourism is Canada? Still, 5th year in a decade the seals have been hit…)

Reply to  griff
March 14, 2021 11:03 am

No difference has been found between harp seals at the Gulf and those at the Front, so together they are treated as one population for management purposes (Sergeant (1991; Stenson 2014). Harp seals are currently more abundant than they have been for decades and are still increasing. Below is a graph showing changes in NE Atlantic harp seal numbers between 1952 and 2019 (DFO 2020):

comment image?w=1110&h=264

Next time try reading the article with glasses, if you read it at all.

Last edited 28 days ago by Sunsettommy
March 14, 2021 9:27 am

“Harp seals are currently more abundant than they have been for decades and are still increasing.” – that little tidbit was buried in the middle of the article!

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