Canada Dispatches Heavy Icebreakers to Rescue Seal Hunters

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 23, 2007

TORONTO, April 22 -- The Canadian Coast Guard is sending its heaviest icebreakers and hoping for a change in wind to try to free about 450 seal hunters whose boats have been trapped by ice off northern Newfoundland, Coast Guard officials said Sunday.

The ice is so thick and packed so tightly by an Arctic wind from the northeast that unless the wind changes, "it would be too severe even for the heavy icebreakers," said Capt. Brian Penny in St. John's, Newfoundland. "We are having extreme difficulty getting our icebreakers through this large ice field."

The shifting ice pack trapped nearly 100 long-line fishing boats, which range from about 35 to 65 feet long, as the crews were engaged in the annual hunt for seals on ice floes this month. The Coast Guard has delivered food and fuel by helicopter and removed about 55 nonessential crew members from the boats, Penny said.

At least one of the fishing boats is so damaged that it will probably sink when released by the ice, Penny said. Another was punctured by ice Saturday night, and the Coast Guard is trying to get repair materials to the captain before the ice loosens. Several boats have been forced out of the water and are on their sides. Their crews have walked across the ice to the icebreakers or other fishing vessels, he said.

"We're still concerned over the amount of vessels that are damaged," Penny said. "If we have to tow long-liners through those conditions, it's very demanding on our facilities. It's a very demanding, time-consuming process."

Penny said Sunday that the Coast Guard is moving three of its largest icebreakers in from other areas to help the three smaller icebreakers already at the site. Even so, he said, the icebreakers must work in tandem to break through the dense ice pack.

The icebreakers are working at full power to try to break through the ice, a difficult and fuel-consuming operation, he said. They managed to free only three boats Saturday, and one quickly became stuck again.

Normally, the seal hunters pick their way through open water between ice floes. But the unusual sustained wind from the northeast has jammed the ice against the coast of Newfoundland, creating a solid ice pack nearly 140 miles long and 70 miles wide, Penny said. Only when the wind shifts to blow from the south or southwest will the ice pack spread out enough to allow the retrieval of all the ships, he said.

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