W. Hudson Bay polar bear population decline stories are unethical and ignore critical caveats

From Polar Bear Science

Dr. Susan Crockford

Canadian government scientists created headline news worldwide last week when they told the media that Western Hudson Bay polar bear numbers appeared to have declined by 27% between 2017 and 2021, based on a survey report that has not been made public. This is called ‘science by press release’. Its practice is rightfully considered unethical, as it is usually associated with “people promoting scientific ‘findings’ of questionable scientific merit who turn to the media for attention when they are unlikely to win the approval of the professional scientific community.

Not surprisingly, all of the stories stated or implied a strong association between this purported population decline and lack of sea ice due to ‘climate change’. However, sea ice conditions have been particularly good over the last five years–for both freeze-up and breakup dates–calling into question how ‘lack of sea ice’ could possibly be to blame for the apparent decline.

Reuters story (dated 23 December 2022) admits this is the case and included another critical caveat that only one news outlet I saw bothered to mention, which happened to be BBC News:

Scientists cautioned a direct link between the population decline and sea ice loss in Hudson Bay wasn’t yet clear, as four of the past five years have seen moderately good ice conditions. Instead, they said, climate-caused changes in the local seal population might be driving bear numbers down.

For example, an Associated Press story published the day before (22 December 2022), picked up by many other outlets, did not include these critical pieces of information about recent good sea ice conditions and possible declines in seal abundance.

Without being able to check the actual government report for details (which is not a peer-reviewed document), there is not much more that I can say. Although several news stories claimed the report was recently released, it was not publicly available on the Nunavut Government website as of 28 December or anywhere else online that I could find. None of the news reports link to any such ‘available’ study, cited its title, or even linked to an official press release.

However, based on the Reuters story, it appears that the authors were unable to make a definitive link between sea ice loss and a decline in polar bear numbers in Western Hudson Bay, despite what they (or others) might have told the media.

What about ringed seals, their primary prey? Have ringed seal numbers declined over the 2017-2021 period, creating a lack of food for bears in Hudson Bay? If so, is there a clear correlation between declining ringed seal numbers and lack of sea ice, as implied by the Reuters statement quoted above?

The short answer is no. Studies on ringed seals in Hudson Bay indicate no definitive cause and effect between sea ice changes and seal health and survival (Ferguson et al. 2017, 2019, 2020), primarily because there has been no declining trend in sea ice coverage:

Our trend analysis of environ­mental variables indicated a strong warming pattern prior to 1999. Following this decisive shift, the region has dem­onstrated no warming trend. Still, the 2000 to 2016 body conditions trend was negative suggesting an overall decline in ringed seal body fat over this period. [Ferguson et al. 2020]

In other words, if there has been an actual decline in polar bear numbers, as the authors claim to have found, it is not clear by any means what is to blame. If some bears were not finding enough seals to eat over the last few years and have been starving to death, it is not at all clear why there were fewer seals available.

Bottom line: There are no data linking a critical lack of sea ice to poor health or abundance for either polar bears or their ringed seal prey in Western Hudson Bay between 2017 and 2021. Despite this, the authors of a government report on polar bear numbers that is not yet publicly available felt comfortable telling the media that lack of sea ice could be blamed for an apparent decline in polar bear abundance over the last five years, confirming earlier predictions that this is exactly what would happen because of human-caused global warming. I call this a perfect example of ‘science by press release‘, which researchers resort to only when they have findings of questionable scientific merit and a sensational narrative to push.

I’ll assess the actual report when it is made publicly available.


Ferguson, S.H., Young, B.G., Yurkowski, D.J., et al. 2017. Demographic, ecological, and physiological responses of ringed seals to an abrupt decline in sea ice availability. PeerJ 5:e2957. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.2957

Ferguson, S.H., Yurkowski, D.J., Young, B.G., et al. 2019. Do intraspecific life history patterns follow interspecific predictions? A test using latitudinal variation in ringed seals. Population Ecology 61(4):371-382. https://doi.org/10.1002/1438-390X.12008

Ferguson, S.H., Yurkowski, D.J., Young, B.G., et al. 2020. Comparing temporal patterns in body condition of ringed seals living within their core geographic range with those living at the edge. Ecography 43:1521-1535. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.04988

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December 30, 2022 10:55 am

Saw this in the Canadian newspapers. Commented that maybe, just maybe the authors and the readers might want to read Susan Crockford on the status of polar bears.

December 30, 2022 11:31 am

Whilst the criticism of the media is fair I believe the scientific community is the root cause of nonsense being disseminated widely.

We know that peer review is riddled with problems, so much so its been criticised by the editor of the Lancet.

The scientific community need to address the problem of individual scientific studies/papers being misrepresented or published out of context.

For example, no responsible scientist, I’m sure, appreciates the climate ‘crises’ being hijacked by LGBTQ or racial activists.

We can’t force the media to change, it has the right to free speech as much as anyone. If we don’t like what it says we don’t need to read it however, in terms of researched data the scientific community need to stop the media quoting isolated elements of a study which misrepresent the rest of the paper.

I can’t really suggest how that’s done but science itself needs to stop its hard work being demeaned by people who have an agenda other than ensuring the integrity of science is maintained.

Reply to  HotScot
December 30, 2022 11:54 am

The so far unpublished paper not seen, is from Government “scientists” and has not been pal reviewed. It is, to put it as purely and simply as possible, Government propaganda. If it were not then it would have simply been published before there were any declarations of its supposed conclusions.

Reply to  rah
December 30, 2022 11:11 pm

Most people have no concept of the size of the territory involved. On a short term count basis, it’s very easy to simply not see white bears against the white snow as you fly over. And nighttime IR isn’t in the budget….

On a long term local count basis, male polar bears are known to eat cubs and females, not because of a lack of seals or ice…they’re just murderous SOB’s. Consequently the population can vary by half to double over a twenty year period depending on how many such nasty males are in the local population.

Reply to  DMacKenzie
December 31, 2022 12:40 am

Your assuming the counters have integrity. I make no such assumption when government dollars and agendas are involved. Besides, bears migrate.

Reply to  rah
December 31, 2022 5:46 pm

🙂 just like the fairy penguins in Antarctica … migrated around the peninsula yet the ‘scientista’ claimed that the depopulation in the area where they expected to find them was death by climate change … because that was their agenda, not looking for where they might have gone to.

Reply to  HotScot
December 30, 2022 3:49 pm

Freedom of speech? Not in France!

In France part of the “pro science” (uber-vaxxers, etc.) community dreams of censoring the media when the “scientific community” wants to. At least they want to force a publisher to also publish a “fact check” by one Academy (of Science, of Medicine, of Technology) to refute the article.

They accept the fact people can publish claims they disagree with, like I accept bad weather; they don’t like it and would rather change it if they ever got the power.

France in general isn’t a glorious defender of freedom. French people accept limited freedom.

Reply to  niceguy12345
December 31, 2022 5:48 pm

Agreed, the French accept a lot that is below par.

Robert B
Reply to  HotScot
December 31, 2022 12:59 pm

The ultimate quality control is reader review, not peer review.

December 30, 2022 11:32 am

If you want to keep losing the debate keep counting polar bear

Ron Long
December 30, 2022 11:38 am

Good to see that Dr. Susan is keeping track of things, as usual. What I cannot reconcile is that polar bears are so important and ringed seals are nothing but polar bear food. Looks like the ringed seals need a better PR system.

John Hultquist
December 30, 2022 12:11 pm

While it is available, have a look at this image:
seal-sitting-iceberg-illustration-93093031.jpg (800×566) (dreamstime.com)

I am impressed with the pine trees.
The web has images and cartoons of seals. Some are believable.

Reply to  John Hultquist
December 30, 2022 1:57 pm

Seems fake. You’re right about the trees. Two are just smaller mirror images of the larger one.

Citizen Smith
December 30, 2022 12:14 pm

“past five years have seen moderately good ice conditions.” Like a strutting peacock, the BBC must be very proud their propaganda skills.

December 30, 2022 1:19 pm

The #$^(& media.

Any “scientists” who cozy up these anti-social misfits deserve to be taken for exactly what they are –


December 30, 2022 1:21 pm

This is fascinating. It’s about medical research but so much of what is said equally applies to the world of climate science.

Reply to  CampsieFellow
December 30, 2022 1:58 pm

Some people are logical in nature and eventually come around.

Coeur de Lion
December 30, 2022 1:24 pm

There’s a note of desperation in all this. The ice is breaking up on every side (joke).

Tom Abbott
December 31, 2022 5:26 am

From the article: “I’ll assess the actual report when it is made publicly available.”

That’s what they are afraid of. 🙂

It doesnot add up
December 31, 2022 3:06 pm

I saw the Reuters story, but I felt frustrated by not being able to track back to the underlying study. Now I know why.

January 1, 2023 9:39 am

Filtering by sea ice level ensures we never discover that polat bear populations are not affected by sea ice area.

January 1, 2023 9:43 am

Ask the people thrown out of the Canadian fishing industry. Ask them about the quality of Canadian Government Science.

January 1, 2023 9:50 am

Having been thrown out of the fishing industry, east coast Canadians came out west by the tens and hundreds of thousands to work in the oil industry.

And now Canadian Government Scientists are saying the oil industry must be capped and shut down.

Those Canadian Government Scientists must surely have it in for the folks from the maritimes.

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