Is climate change behind the unusual occurrence?

A juvenile harp seal rests on an ice covered dock next to a seagull in Boston Harbor, in Boston. Harp seals are typically born on pack ice in the Maritime Provinces of Canada and are sometimes found along the coast of the Northeast United States. But there are reports of three times the usual number of harp seal sightings in 2011. (Steven Senne/AP)

The Associated Press wrote Sunday:

Small numbers of juvenile harp seals are typically found each winter stranded along the coast of the northeastern United States. But this year, well over 100 adult harp seals — not juveniles — have been spotted, said Mendy Garron, regional marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Gloucester, Mass. The sightings are reported by 14 seal stranding and rehabilitation organizations in New England and the Middle Atlantic.

“In some areas they’re reporting three times the normal number of sightings,” Garron said. “This year, we’ve had four sightings of adult harp seals in North Carolina, which we’ve never had before. We typically don’t see them that far south.”

DelmarvaOnline reported today: “Three adult harp seals came ashore on Delmarva beaches this season, marking what appears to be a trend throughout the region.”

So what does this have to do with weather and climate? Researchers are investigating...

New England Cable News ( quotes scientist Charles Tilburg, a marine scientist at the University of New England (UNE), who suspects the southward migration of seals from their native Gulf of St. Lawrence is related to sea ice loss resulting from climate change:

“If you decrease that ice they are going to go in different directions to haul up and give birth,” said Charles Tilburg.

Tilburg believes the seals are a visible sign of the larger problem of climate change, and while there have been variations in ice and temperatures before it’s not been at this scale.

The harp seal’s vulnerability to ice loss was described by the non-profit group the Climate Institute accordingly:

It is, however, in the Arctic region where the seals’ predicament is most pressing. In Canada, 2007 had one of the worst ice conditions on record, causing serious problems for harp seals. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) monitored the gulf of Saint Lawrence last year, and reported that it was practically devoid of ice, and, naturally, devoid of harp seals. Sheryl Fink, a senior researcher with IFAW stated: “the conditions this year are disastrous. I’ve surveyed this region for six years and I haven’t seen anything like this. [. . .] There is wide open water and almost no seals.”

Interestingly, we reported Arctic sea ice extent set a record low in February and was “particularly low” in Gulf of St. Lawrence. CWG’s Andrew Freedman documented the extraordinarily warm conditions in the Arctic in his recent post: The winter the Arctic shifted south

This begs the question: Are the seals shifting south with the Arctic?

To researchers at NOAA, the reasons for the shift haven’t emerged. As the Associated Press reported:

For now, there is no clear explanation for why more seals are showing up in U.S. waters, said Gordon Waring, who heads the seal program at NOAA’s fisheries science center in Woods Hole, Mass.”

They could be making their way south because of climatic conditions or perhaps in search of food, Waring said.

Notwithstanding the loss of habitat for seals, DelmarvaNow reports the harp seal population has grown dramatically in Canada. But it says Suzanne Thurman, executive director of Delaware’s marine mammal stranding organization, indicated better data may be a factor in the increasing numbers.

Obviously, the population and distribution of harp seals is a puzzle still being put together.

In the mean time, if you happen to spot one, NOAA officials say stay way according to DelmarvaOnline as the seals can “bite and pass on diseases”.