Sea ice loss threatens habitat for seals across northern Canada
Fisheries and Oceans Canada will begin consultations this fall on whether to list ringed seals under the federal Species at Risk Act.
The consultations will begin nearly two years after the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, or COSEWIC, declared the animals a species of special concern in November of 2019, noting: “This small seal needs sea ice to thrive.”
Ringed seals are abundant throughout the Canadian Arctic, and the population is considered stable at present, but Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. vice-president James Eetoolook says he’s heard reports of the animals declining in several areas, including Chesterfield Inlet, Eclipse Sound and parts of Ungava Bay.
“The ringed seal has seemed to be doing well now and remains abundant in the Arctic, but in some local areas, Inuit have observed changes,” Eetoolook said.
Eetoolook suspects increased marine traffic is also a factor causing ringed seals to leave some areas and congregate in others. “They don’t tend to stay in one place for long.”
‘Keystone species’ says biologist
Sam Stephenson, a species at risk biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Winnipeg, describes ringed seals as a “keystone species.” The animals are vital both for polar bears and for Inuit who hunt them for food and furs.
Fisheries and Oceans plans to consult with all Inuit hunters and trappers organizations in Nunavut starting this fall, as well as in communities in Newfoundland, northern Quebec and the N.W.T. They’ll produce a report to the minister, who will decide whether to list the animals.
The department anticipates a “prolonged consultation process” due to the importance of seals to people in many parts of northern Canada, according to a memo to the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board.
Stephenson emphasizes that if ringed seals are listed under the Species At Risk Act, that doesn’t mean people can’t hunt them. “Listing the species under special concern does not include any kind of restrictions at all.”
Stephenson said the listing could raise the animal’s profile, prompt the creation of management plans and help draw funding for further study.
The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board will also be invited to offer its opinion on whether ringed seals should be listed as a species of concern.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Arctic sea ice loss linked to spread of deadly virus in marine mammals, Eye on the Arctic
Greenland: Oldest Arctic sea ice vanishes twice as fast as rest of region, study shows, Eye on the Arctic
United States: Heat stress that caused Alaska salmon deaths a sign of things to come, scientist warns, CBC News