Lack of ice means more seal sightings on shore, says DFO
Harbour Grace’s newest visitor spent several days recently alternately sunning himself and going for swims in the cold April harbour water - and due to a lack of ice in the water this spring, Newfoundlanders may be seeing a lot more like him.
Harbour Grace residents say the tourist - a bearded seal pup - was quite docile and approachable as it returned day after day to a rocky beach along Water Street, and some orange-ish colour on its fur might have been bloodstains, indicating a possible injury.
Rob Dove of Harbour Grace described what looked to him like an injury - “He has blood around his neck,” he said - and said the animal would likely keep coming back to the beach and heading back out into the water until it died on land or drowned.
“They’ll swim up into the water and sink themselves,” he said.
But Bennett Rogers, chief of conservation and protection for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said DFO sent wildlife officers to Harbour Grace the morning of April 6, but the seal was no longer there - and might not actually have been injured.
“ We get a lot of calls similar to that, that an animal looks injured and it’s on the beach, but you go down and check it out, and quite often they’re not injured,” he said, adding that often what looks like an injury might be leftover blood from a seal that’s recently whelped pups.
“If there’s an animal that’s injured, it’s unfortunate and all that, but it happens, and sometimes it’s by man and sometimes it’s not by man. The important thing that we tell people is that you’re not allowed to disturb a marine mammal,” he said, adding that’s against the law.
“But if someone comes across an animal that’s apparently wounded or injured, then they can report that to DFO,” he said, “and we would send an officer to check that out.”
Rogers said if the animal is severely wounded and likely isn’t going to live, the fisheries officer can euthanize it, usually after removing the animal from a public area like a community beach to a more remote area.
Seal reports might become more frequent, said Rogers, because there seems to be less ice in coastal waters around the province for seals to use.
“ There’s not much ice in the northeast part of the province ... and when there’s not as much ice you will see more animals obviously up on the shore,” he said.
Daryl Jones, a research assistant with the seal research facility at the St. John’s Ocean Sciences Centre, said for pups especially, it’s normal behaviour for them to come on shore, go for a swim and come back.
“ The biggest concern for the seal is land predators, or humans. So for that, humans should stay away ... humans, and dogs are often with humans, and that often causes distress to the seal by barking at it or trying to bite at it.”
Jones said people should leave seals alone.
“ If people are concerned, they should call DFO. Generally, for the most part ... if the seal’s on shore, they’re often just sleeping, and they’re fine,” he said. “A lot of people are surprised to see seals on shore for some reason; they think they’re whales, and that they should be in the water all the time.”
Jones said sometimes seal pick places to rest that are more public than others, and so sometimes attract some unwanted attention, even from people who are only trying to do good things for the seal. “I’ve heard stories of people trying to feed milk bottles to them, different things that they can’t metabolize anyway.” And sometimes the attention isn’t as well-intentioned, he said, as when people tease or taunt the seal.
Young seals might seem approachable on the beach, he said, but often it’s because they don’t yet recognize people as threats. “Until (people) get really close and you’re in their space, then they may feel that you’re a threat to them. They can hurt people.”
That’s why people with dogs need to be particularly careful, said Jones, because if a seal feels stressed or threatened, it’s a lot more likely to become aggressive.
DFO’s Rogers said seals can be dan- gerous. “A seal is a wild animal, and some of them can be really big. If you get a hood seal, some of them can be several hundred pounds,” he said. “Even a small seal, like a pup - someone might think, ‘Aw, that’s a cute pup,’ but they can bite. They can give you a nasty bite.”
Jones says seals seem to be travelling farther south in recent years than they used to.
“ In general, over the years, we’ve been seeing sightings of seals, especially harp seals, further south than they normally went,” he said, adding that no one is yet sure why. “Some say they’re just looking for food further away, and sometimes they just get confused, so it’s hard to say on that.”
Jones also said at a recent conference in the United States he heard that they were getting more reports of seals down there.
The most important thing a person can do if they see a seal on the beach, according to Jones? “ Enjoy the moment. It’s a chance to see some wildlife,” he said.
A bearded seal pup rests on a beach along Water Street in Harbour Grace on April 5.