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Quebec Bulletin
June - July 2014/Volume 17/Number 3

Early departure for harp seals

Harp seal herd on pack ice.
© Mike Hammill, DFO.
Harp seal herd on pack ice.

This past winter, ships from the Magdalen Islands could not reach the harp seals because of the very thick ice. Ice conditions were excellent for harp seal pupping, but the herd quickly drifted away in early March, once the pack ice began to break down.

Every year, harp seals migrate from the Arctic to the Gulf of St. Lawrence to whelp and to rear their pups on the pack ice a few dozen kilometres northwest of the Magdalen Islands.

Recent years have seen poor ice conditions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In 2010, many females seemed to have abandoned the area. Ice conditions continued to be unfavourable for pupping until 2013. The winter of 2013–2014 was marked by much colder temperatures than in previous years, and the extent of the ice cover was the greatest it had been in 10 years. In late February 2014, adults and their pups were seen on the ice.

The timing of a herd's departure on drift ice depends on the wind, the current's general direction and the strength of the tides. It is not unusual for the ice that the seals are on to remain trapped on the northern side of the Islands for two to three weeks, drifting back and forth with the current and tides. When that happens, the ice cover normally disappears around late March, making it easier for hunters to get to the seals. Then, the herd drifts on the ice, following the coast. It passes around the southern tip of the Islands, or heads to Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton Island before continuing its drift towards Cabot Strait.

In 2014, however, the ice hugged the northeast part of the Magdalen Islands and then quickly drifted eastward. By March 2, the seals were already nearing Bird Rocks. And by March 7, the herd had already reached Cabot Strait's western entrance.  Although some of the seals drifted through the strait, many headed towards southwestern Newfoundland Island and, by mid-March, they were drifting down along its west coast where they were seen near the Port au Port peninsula.

Mike Hammill

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