IMAGE: GRAY SEAL
John Eastcott & Yva Momatiuk  /  National Geographic/Getty Images
Gray seals love the water but females rely on ice floes to give birth. The lack of much ice this winter has forced thousands to turn several islands into birthing grounds.
updated 2/3/2006 12:34:59 PM ET 2006-02-03T17:34:59

Around 1,500 seal pups were swept out to sea and drowned by a tidal surge off Canada’s east coast this week after a lack of ice cover meant their mothers were forced to give birth on a small island, environment officials said Friday.

A resident on the island described how the mother seals had frantically tried to push their tiny pups back on to land as they floundered in the storm-tossed water.

Gray seals in the Northumberland Strait — which lies between the provinces of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island — usually give birth on the pack ice which forms in winter.

But abnormally warm conditions this year mean there is no ice in the strait, so some seals had to give birth on the beaches of Pictou Island. Unusually high tides hit the island this week after a major storm.

“The majority of those seals born above the high water mark have been lost. We’re estimating ... that of about 2,000 pups that were born prior to the storm, we lost about 1,500,” said Jerry Conway, a marine mammal adviser for the federal Fisheries and Oceans Department.

Television pictures showed dead seal pups littered on one of Pictou Island’s beaches.

Resident describes frantic mothers
Jane MacDonald, one of the island’s few permanent residents, said the mother seals had tried hard to save their offspring. “The mothers just push them and push them with their nose, and they dive back under and push them back up, and they get back into the tide wash, and then a big wave will hit and just sweep them back out to sea,” she told CBC television.

Conway said it was not uncommon for seals in the Northumberland Strait to give birth on land.

“I’ve been with the department 27 years and I can remember at least half a dozen instances when there hasn’t been ice of sufficient strength (for seals to give birth there),” he told Reuters from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

When seal pups are born they weigh only about 20 pounds and have no blubber, which means they find it hard to float.

Conway blamed the unusually high tide for the deaths, adding: “Normally, these pups would have survived.”

The gray seal population in the Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St Lawrence is around 400,000 animals.

Conway said the lack of ice cover off Eastern Canada could also cause problems for the large harp seal population, which usually gives birth in late March near the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“I’m suggesting that unless we have a tremendous decrease in temperature and the forming of ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, we may have a repeat of this with harp seals,” he said. This could mean seals being forced to give birth on beaches on the Magdalen Islands and Prince Edward Island. 

Mothers usually birth on ice floes
The mother seals, which can grow as heavy as 800 pounds, normally have their pups on the ice floes that clog the gulf.

Fisheries officials say they haven't seen so many seals onshore since the early 1980s, when mild weather also hindered the formation of the floes.

Female seals normally abandon their pups about three weeks after birth, but the young remain out of the water for some time while they shed their downy white coats.

Dave Phillips, a senior climatologist at Environment Canada, said there have been weather anomalies across the country, with ice roads not forming in northern Saskatchewan, Winnipeg getting unseasonable rain in January and barren ski slopes in Vancouver.

Phillips said that while winters have been getting warmer over the last several years, it isn't clear if this points to global warming.

And while most Canadians are enjoying the mild winter, there could be a steep price to be paid in the months ahead, he said. Crops, for example, could be hurt by a shock of warm and then cold weather. Businesses that rely on winter activity are hurting, and several remote northern communities have been cut off by a lack of ice.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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