Monday, September 17, 2007

West Ice survey 2002:VI

Read the first part of this post here.
Harp seal hunting has burgeoned over the past few years. Back in 2002, the hunt of the population we were surveying was small – a couple of thousand animals at most. Almost all publicity is on the Canadian hunt, but there are four different hunts on three separate populations of harp seals. The biggest, most famous, population (and hunt) of harp seals is found in the waters between eastern Canada and Greenland. Another group of harp seals breeds on the ice off the eastern side of Greenland, and lives in the Arctic Ocean, between Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. A third population lives in the Barents Sea, and gives birth on the ice off northwest Russia.

Over three years in the early 21st Century, Canadian sealers killed nearly three-quarters of a million harp seals, all under a government quota. Once again, Canadians can claim the biggest hunt of marine mammals in the world. But Canada is not alone. In 2005, more Norwegian sealing boats headed to sea than at any time in the past two decades. In Norway, there's talk of offering “quota bonuses” - higher quotas for the fish that they catch over the rest of the year – to fishermen who are prepared to risk tearing their vessels open in the pack ice to get to seals - or who'll risk the financial and fuel costs of ice-strengthening their boats. There have even been calls in Norway for a return to hunting whitecoat pups.

Harp seal hunting never really went away; it just dropped from public view. Since 1970, in the years for which hunt data are reliable (there are a few glitches in the records), there was no year where people killed less than 100,000 harp seals.

Most of the harp seals killed are from the largest population, off the Canadian coast. These days, most killing is done by Canadians. But in decades past, Norwegians were the main players. Other hunts take place off the east Greenland coast, (the “West Ice” to Norwegians, where we were on this trip), off the White Sea (the “East Ice” to Norwegians), and off western Greenland. Norwegians and Russians (or Soviets, in times past) hunted seals off the West Ice and East Ice. Now the West Ice hunt is all Norwegian, the White Sea hunt mostly Russian, but Norwegians have moved back there recently. Greenlanders hunt mainly off west Greenland.

Despite receiving the most publicity, the Canadian hunt of harp seals hasn't always been the biggest. For example in 1985, just under 20,000 harp seals were killed in the smallest Canadian hunt on record. Yet a total of over 120,000 harp seals were killed that year, over 80,000 in the East Ice, and more than 20,000 by Greenlanders. And the real number of seals killed is always greater than the records show. The quoted numbers are the size of the catch that is “landed” – brought back to port. There are always some seals that are mortally wounded and not recovered - not “landed” - so these numbers of dead seals are all underestimates.

The government agencies tasked with regulating seal hunts need to know something about the populations being hunted. Enter scientists. Estimates of animal abundance have to come from somewhere, and there's a little more to counting animals than taking your shoes off once you've seen ten. Grand plans for “managing” animals amount to nothing if there aren't people with the scientific nous and physical capacity to work out how many animals actually exist. Off the West Ice, that includes working in one of the most extreme settings our planet has to offer.

Read the next part of this post here

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