Climate change: Canada's cruel harvest

Pictures of seal pups drowning in melting polar ice have shocked the world. Yesterday campaigners reported they have seen survivors clinging to life. But in a few days' time, the hunters will come and the pups' brief struggle against so many odds will come to a bloody end

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These are the wrenching images that will once more ignite worldwide recriminations and protest as the Canadian government prepares to give the green light to its annual culling of baby harp seals in spite of new evidence that the population is doubly at risk this year because of collapsing ice cover.

The authorities in Ottawa announced last week a sharp reduction in the numbers of pups that hunters will be allowed to kill this spring in a first official acknowledgement of the impact the melting ice is having on the seal population. Conservationists, however, are demanding that the harvest be cancelled.

Even though public uproar, notably in Britain and Europe, over the seal slaughter is likely to be more intense than ever before, the government is expected in the next several days to announce a start-date for the annual culling. The hunter's vessels are tied up but ready to start the hunt at a moment's notice.

Fisheries officials in Ottawa have responded to renewed criticism of the massacre by asserting that the melting of the ice is not presenting as dire a threat to the harp seal populations as the conservationist claim. Nor are they willing to accept that the situation this year is necessarily linked to global warming.

Scientists with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW, which has its headquarters in Massachusetts, have been issuing increasingly bleak reports from the areas where the hunt traditionally begins each March, notably around the Magdalen Islands at the mouth of the St Lawrence river. The alarm has similarly been sounded by the Human Society of the United States.

The two organisations have deployed experts to the region over recent days, both on the water and flying in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, and are now giving the rest of the world the same bleak news: thousands of newborn pups are dying because of ice that is either absent altogether or breaking up prematurely.

When the new pups are born, it is vital that they remain on stable ice to suckle their mothers and begin the process of shedding their fluffy white coats before they venture into the frigid water. This spring, however, a vast majority may have tumbled off prematurely cracking ice and drowned. In some areas where the hunt is shortly to begin, the pup mortality rate may be as high as 100 per cent.

"There is no place on earth like this - the peace and the quiet and the innocence of the pups surround you entirely," Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society, writes in the most recent entry in her internet blog over the weekend. "A handful of baby seals were there, basking in the sun. We managed to get close to one who was just three weeks of age. His sweet face looked up at me from across the ice, and all at once, the tragedy of this impending hunt struck me full-force."

Ms Aldworth continues: "In just a few days, the boats will come, and the pristine ice will be transformed into an open air slaughterhouse. Two hundred and seventy thousand will be brutally clubbed and shot to death to make fashion accessories."

Last week, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in Ottawa confirmed that it was setting an upper limit of 270,000 on the numbers of cubs the hunters will be allowed to kill this year, a significant reduction from the quota of 335,000 set a year ago. The hunt would normally have opened by now but this year it has been delayed while fisheries officials try to get a full picture of the extent of the ice melt.

The reduction has done nothing to ease the concern of the conservationists, however, who point out that historically the hunters, many being Inuit fishermen for whom the annual seal harvest has replaced income lost after the collapse of cod stocks, often exceed the limits set by the government.

Officials at the DFO say, however, they will be taking more aggressive steps to enforce the quotas. Hunters will have less time than in past years to remain on the ice to allow government monitors to check that the limits are being respected. Also any vessel that is caught breaking the ceilings will be punished with a lower quota next season.

The astonishing depletion of the ice is particularly grave in the southern area of the hunt region around the Magdalen Islands and Prince Edward Island. The IFAW has reported that massive areas that would be normally still be frozen at this time of year are now open water and that even where there is ice it is often crumbled and unstable.

The gravity of the change was confirmed last week by the government's own scientists at Environment Canada. Ice cover has been found indeed to be at a near record low. "Due to unusual warm temperatures in December and January, the ice was very late developing," Lynn Brunette, a spokeswoman, said. "One week [around] 22 January saw record low amounts of ice."

All this comes as members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been assessing the global effects of warming for the past decade on behalf of the United Nations, is preparing to submit a new report on Friday.

The sombre report is likely to underscore the panel's conclusions circulated earlier this year that it no longer has any doubt that the phenomenon of warming and the impact it has had on everything from sea levels around the world to the plight of polar bears endangered by receding ice in Arctic waters is the direct result of human activity, particularly the continuing reliance of our societies on fossil fuels.

It will also highly the so-called "climate divide" where rich and industrialised countries, notably the United States and western Europe, are both producing by far the greatest share of climate-warming gases while spending disproportionately on preparing to protect themselves from the consequences, while the countries least responsible for the phenomenon are unable to take similar precautions.

"The inequity of this whole situation is really enormous if you look at who's responsible and who's suffering as a result," Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the UN climate panel, warned ahead of the new report's release.

Yet, while the drowning of polar bears and the crumbling of their traditional birthing environment on large ice flows has become a widely-accepted symbol of the plight of a warming planet, the Canadian government is yet to accept that the shrinking of the ice habitat for the seals is part of the same problem.

Mike Hammill, a research scientist with the DFO, told The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto that the ice cover was similarly diminished in both 1969 and 1981. He said he could not therefore say whether the shrinkage today was the result of global warming or just naturally recurring weather rhythms. "These things seem to operate on 10-year cycles," he said.

He added that in setting this year's quota, the department has paid close attention to the melting ice and the impact of the seal population. "We have been anticipating this in our modelling the last few years. We have been putting into our model the assumption that we're losing 100,000 extra pups due to poor ice conditions ... I think the numbers will be higher, but I'm not sure how much higher."

He also had this response to the conservationist groups: "It's not an ecological disaster."

The government estimates that the seal population, most of them harp seals, currently stands at about 5.5 million. That is down from 5.8 million in 2004. Officials say they would only consider the population to be in serious danger if the number dipped below 1.8 million. However, Ottawa announced that plans for the next comprehensive census of the population will be moved forward one year to 2008 from 2009 precisely to get a better picture of the impact of the thinner ice.

As they continue their own surveys, the conservationists are unlikely to accept the government's case that a full-blown crisis has not yet arrived.

"The conditions this year are disastrous," Sheryl Fink, a researcher with IFAW, who also posts reports on a blog, said. "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. I only saw a handful of adult harp seals and even fewer pups, where normally we should be seeing thousands and thousands of seals."

One of her recent airborne research outings was over the Cabot Straits near Cape Breton, where the pup pictures on these pages were taken. "Yesterday, the helicopter headed off to Cabot Strait," she wrote in her most recent entry. "The team spotted around 30 whitecoats [young pups], no beaters, no adults and not much ice. Today, we're having a late start due to poor weather conditions."

The seal hunt has attracted fierce controversy every year. The 2006 season saw clashes between protesters and hunters on the ice floes.

In recent days, several celebrities, including the former model Twiggy and the Spanish singer Julio Iglesias, have co-signed a petition pleading with Ottawa to cancel the hunt.

"Man enjoys several rights but he also has duties," their letter states. "One of them involves preserving the diversity of his natural heritage before it is too late."

The IFAW, which transports protesters and journalists to the region to witness the cull every year, has noted that most of the protesters have already returned to their homes because the break up of the ice means that cannot access it in the way that has been possible in recent years to confront the hunters.

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