Cruelty not the only issue

I wrote this op-ed around the time of the WTO ruling (late November) and sent it to the Globe and Mail — they didn’t want it. Instead, it will be appearing on iPolitics:  Europe won’t kill the seal hunt, climate change will.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) recently upheld the European ban against Canadian seal products, saying the ban was valid because of public moral concerns about seal welfare. The “welfare” issue, up to now, has focused on the thorny issue of animal cruelty, and on this subject there isn’t much new to add, except that the amendments made in 2009 by Fisheries and Oceans Canada to the Marine Mammal Regulations in anticipation of the EU ruling did little, if anything, to address this.

What is new is that there is growing evidence to suggest that the harp seal hunt, which up to now has been characterized by mainstream environmental groups in Canada as “sustainable,” may not be sustainable at all.

Historically, the oceans of the northwest Atlantic could have easily sustained eleven million and maybe even as high as fourteen million harp seals at any one time.  Indeed, a seal hunt of the magnitude that was sustained since the mid-1600s would not have been possible without a harp seal population of enormous abundance. For instance, in just the three decades between 1830 and 1860, thirteen million harp seals were officially landed. By the 1970s the unregulated hunt took its toll and the population was reduced to less than two million, forcing Canada to introduce a quota system of management. By 2012, the population had recovered to roughly 8 million.

That sounds like a heck of a lot of seals, right? So, what’s the sustainability issue?

It’s called climate change. Harp seals depend exclusively on ice for a pupping platform, and its disintegration, particularly at peak pupping periods, is resulting in higher pup mortality by drowning and injury. It could also mean an increase in disease due to overcrowding on the stable ice patches that remain. In 2011, the DFO set a record Total Allowable Catch for the harp seal hunt at 400,000 animals. At the time, Mike Hammill, the head of the department’s marine mammal section argued this number was too high because it didn’t account for the previous two years of poor sea ice conditions and pup loss. As it turned out, the loss of pups due to poor sea ice alone exceeded the catch quota. Of the 580,000 harp seal pups born in 2011, nearly 80 percent of them were drowned or crushed. When you factor in the ones killed in the hunt—only 37,000 that year—not many pups survived at all.

If all the pups born one year were to die, this would mean that five or six years down the road, there wouldn’t be any seals entering the breeding population. In other words, it’s possible that entire year classes could disappear, says one recent study, the first of its kind to look at the decrease in seasonal sea ice and how it might affect harp seal populations into the future. The 2012 peer-reviewed study, funded by Duke University’s Marine Laboratory in North Carolina and the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that seasonal ice cover in all harp seal breeding regions has been in decline as much as six percent per decade and that climate-related changes, along with hunting and other environmental factors, could be responsible for the dramatic changes in the trajectory of harp populations across the North Atlantic over time. The study found that harp seal populations appeared to fluctuate in sync with trends in ice conditions and that “these animals may not be well adapted to absorb the cumulative effects of human influences,” such as hunting, short-term climate variation and climate change.

David Johnston, the study’s lead author, told me that harp seals have evolved to live in a place where the ice is ephemeral. “Under normal conditions, having a bad year every now and then isn’t necessarily a bad thing for harp seals.” Johnston says that’s just part of their relationship with the environment. “Using sea ice is a way to avoid predation and so the risks of having a bad year of sea ice are outweighed by the benefits of not having a bad year every year due to predation,” he says. “What becomes concerning is when you have a string of bad years. You don’t have to be an actuarial scientist to know that if you burn the candle at both ends that eventually the candle no longer burns. That’s how I feel with having a commercial hunt and the high pup mortality. You’re taking from the bottom and the top,” he says.

While our government fights the WTO decision and ignores issues such as climate change, our U.S. counterparts aren’t waiting around for catastrophe to hit. In December 2010 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that four subspecies of ringed seals and two distinct population segments of bearded seals be listed and granted protection under the country’s Endangered Species Act, because the Arctic ice and snow they depend on is vanishing. These species are currently listed as “least concern” by the IUCN, as is the harp seal, because of their current abundance. But given the warmer winters of the future, their fate is worrying.

“It’s not inconceivable that there won’t be harp seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence or on the Front in fifteen years or so,” says Johnston. “Without the ice, there might not be any reason for those animals to come here.” Johnston says the key question is how quickly can these animals adapt by shifting latitudinally or moving further north when it’s time to give birth. “We don’t yet understand what cues the animals actually use to find breeding locations,” he says. Johnston describes a fascinating reproductive strategy that evolved in pinnipeds, including the harp, harbour, hooded and grey seals, as well as in a number of other mammals including rodents and bears, that results in the pregnant females giving birth at the same time each year. In the case of harp seals, after the egg is fertilized the embryo goes into a dormant stage and floats freely in the mother’s uterus for about three and a half months before it implants in the wall of the uterus, where it will begin to develop. This delayed implantation — called “embryonic diapause” in scientific lingo — ensures that the gestation period will coincide with when ice will be available. Johnston adds that the reproductive cycles of harp seals are governed partially by photoperiod, or length of the day, and, as a result, “if the ice changes latitudinally, but the time of day doesn’t, the animals expect the ice to be at a certain place at a certain time and they will continue to show up ready to give birth in the same place every year,” ice or no ice.

So, the seal hunt isn’t just about animal cruelty. We need to start recognizing it for what it has also become: unsustainable.