Harp seals in­vade Cana­dian town

Daily Press - - Extra - By Isaac Stan­ley-Becker Wash­ing­ton Post

Rod­dick­ton-Bide Arm is a quaint coastal town on the north­ern penin­sula of New­found­land, Canada.

It is also a com­mu­nity fac­ing a men­ac­ing threat, one that, in the telling of a lo­cal news­pa­per, is rem­i­nis­cent of Al­fred Hitch­cock’s chill­ing 1963 clas­sic “The Birds.”

But in the far eastern reaches of North Amer­ica, the as­sault isn’t ae­rial. It ar­rives by sea.

Sev­eral dozen harp seals have over­run the town of about 1,000, which may need to amend its des­ig­na­tion as the “Moose Cap­i­tal of the World” if the ma­rine mam­mal in­flux con­tin­ues. The spot­ted gray an­i­mals have been pop­ping up all over Rod­dick­ton-Bide Arm.

Some say they started ar­riv­ing around Christ­mas. Oth­ers claim to have seen them weeks be­fore. But it was the sec­ond week of Jan­uary when they be­came un­miss­able. They crawl down roads. They pop­u­late park­ing lots and gas sta­tions. They ap­pear in drive­ways and back­yards.

This is hardly a scene from a Hitch­cock film. But it’s not a feel-good story ei­ther. Two seals were struck by cars and killed this month, au­thor­i­ties con­firmed. The an­i­mals’ slick gray coat tends to blend in with the road.

Res­i­dents have been un­able to help, as na­tional reg­u­la­tions make it il­le­gal to touch ma­rine mam­mals, though en­force­ment has proven dif­fi­cult. So lo­cals have watched as the seals search for food and wa­ter, some­times cry­ing out.

“This is dis­turb­ing for the res­i­dents to watch,” the town’s mayor, Sheila Fitzger­ald, told CTV News. “We are get­ting in­un­dated with phone calls from peo­ple that are say­ing, ‘You’ve gotta do some­thing. The seals are in my drive­way,’ or ‘The seals, I see them suf­fer­ing.’ ”

The seals may be puz­zled by their new sur­round­ings, but the rea­son they have come ashore is straight­for­ward. Sci­en­tists with the coun­try’s De­part­ment of Fish­eries and Oceans said harp seals mi­grate south from the Arc­tic each win­ter. Early in the sea­son, when it’s still rel­a­tively warm, there tends to be lit­tle ice near the shore, so the an­i­mals hug the coast­line. But if the wa­ter freezes be­hind them, they have trou­ble re­turn­ing to the open ocean. Disori­ented, some find their way to land.

The prob­lem could be com­pounded by thin­ning ocean ice, which sci­en­tists see as among the alarm­ing con­se­quences of cli­mate change. Harp seals de­pend on ice cover to mate and breed, and dis­rup­tions could also af­fect their mi­gra­tion sched­ule.

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