Lack of ice means more seal sight­ings on shore, says DFO

The Compass - - NEWS - BY DANIEL MACEACHERN dmaceach­ern@cb­n­com­pass.ca

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.

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