Pack Ice Traps Boats After Seal Hunt

Ice trapped the Labrador Concept in St. Anthony, Newfoundland, last week. Scores of boats that did get out of port for this year's seal hunt have been caught coming back.
Ice trapped the Labrador Concept in St. Anthony, Newfoundland, last week. Scores of boats that did get out of port for this year's seal hunt have been caught coming back. (By Aaron Beswick -- Associated Press)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 20, 2007

TORONTO, April 19 -- More than 100 fishing boats struggling to return from the annual seal hunt with about 400 people aboard were trapped in shifting pack ice off Newfoundland, helpless as an Arctic wind squeezes the ice tight around their vessels, the Canadian Coast Guard said Thursday.

The moving pack ice, long the nemesis of explorers and sailors in the frozen north, was so thick it trapped two of five icebreakers sent to the scene, according to coast guard communications officer Susan Keough in St. John's, Newfoundland. One was freed Thursday; the other remained icebound.

Five fishing boats were at least temporarily abandoned when ice damaged their hulls or lifted the vessels out of the water, Keough said. The 24 crewmen from those boats walked across the pack ice to nearby coast guard icebreakers, and a dozen were then flown home, Keough said.

Three coast guard helicopters were dropping water, fuel and food to other stranded vessels. "Right now, we don't think they are in any immediate danger," Keough said. "We are basically observing the vessels to make sure they are okay. If any appear to be too damaged, they will be evacuated."

The sailors are hoping that the frigid wind from the northeast, which has piled the floating sea ice against Newfoundland's northern shore, will abate and that the ice pressure will ease. But no change was forecast for several days.

"We haven't seen conditions like this in over 10 years," Keough said. "We do regularly see ice each year, but to have this many vessels out there is unusual."

Jack Troake, 71, said he and five crewmen on the Lone Fisher returned to their port of Twillingate at 3 a.m. Tuesday with their quota of 300 seal pelts, just ahead of the northeast winds. "We wanted to get out of there as fast as we could," he said. "When it's a dry northeaster like this, it lasts for a long, long time. We didn't want to get trapped."

Troake, who has been fishing all his life and who lost a son when a fishing boat capsized, recalled other years in which the pack ice has been thick and dangerous. "But back then, we had maybe 35 boats out for the seal hunt," he said. "Now we have nearly 700 vessels. And a lot of the younger generation that are out there now haven't seen this kind of situation."

"It's economic imperative," said Jim Winter, co-founder of the Canadian Sealers Association. "As the other fisheries have become less productive, more boats are out after the seals."

The seal hunt causes an annual controversy, as hunters shoot or club young seals on the ice for their pelts and oil. In the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, the hunt was mostly canceled this year because the ice there has melted after a succession of warmer winters. Scientists estimate that thousands of pups drowned.

But in the Labrador Sea off Newfoundland, thick ice kept some of the boats from getting out of port and then captured some that did make it out. "The ice closed in again," Winter said. "The power of the ice, it's hard to imagine when you are sitting on land."

Most of the hunters are fishermen who rely on the short seal season at the beginning of spring to help finance the crab and shrimp fishing that follows, Troake said.

"Anytime you take a boat to sea in water, let alone ice, it's a risk," Winter said. "The coast guard is doing a very good job, but with Mother Nature, that's no guarantee it's going to work out."

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