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Four seal species in danger of slipping away

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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As Canada kicks off its controversial seal hunting season this week, several species of seals around the world face uncertain futures.

In Finland, the Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis), one of the world’s few freshwater seals, is likely to become extinct in a few years, according to the Finnish natural resources agency, Metsähallitus. Its population has dropped to just 260 due to "warmer winters, drownings of seals caught in fishnets and traps, and the dispersed nature of the seals themselves," The Helsingin Sanomat newspaper reports.

Saimaa ringed seals form dens in snow and ice. In warmer winters, those dens melt, exposing young seals to the elements before they have had a chance to acquire their protective layers of fat. Lack of snow and ice also leave them exposed to fishermen, who sometimes kill them to prevent them from competing for their catch.

Disappearing ice is also becoming a problem for Baltic ringed seals (Phoca hispida botnica). "Climate models predict that the ice on the Baltic Sea will decrease by 50 to 80 percent by the end of the century," Antti Halkka, chair of WWF Finland’s seal unit, told the Finnish news service YLE Uutiset. Like the Saimaa ringed seal, Baltic ringed seal pups live in ice dens where they are protected from predators and icy waters and fed by their protective mothers. Last year, according to WWF Finland, more than half of Baltic seal pups born in three of their four habitats died because ice levels were too low.

Another freshwater seal, Canada’s Lac des loups marins harbour seals (Phoca vitulina mellonae), could soon become listed as an endangered species in Canada, according to a report in The Nunatsiaq News. There are just 100 to 600 of these rare seals left (although most scientists believe the number is closer to the lower end of that range), and according to documents at the government’s Species At Risk Public Registry website, planned hydroelectric plants on the seals’ home lakes would result in the "disappearance of under-ice shelters and ice-free zones, changes in the availability of prey and mercury contamination."

One seal species that doesn’t rely upon ice is the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi). But that doesn’t mean it is less endangered. Research by Jennifer Schultz, a doctoral candidate at the Department of Zoology and Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at University of Hawaii, Kaneohe, shows that Hawaiian monk seals face a genetic bottleneck, with the lowest genetic diversity of any mammal species ever studied. According her paper, published in the January-February 2009 issue of Journal of Heredity, this increases the risk that the species could be wiped out by disease. As to what caused this lack of genetic diversity, Schultz’s DNA tests revealed that all existing monk seals are probably descended from as few as 23 individual seals after the species was hunted to near-extinction in the Nineteenth Century.

Meanwhile, despite protests by many conservation and animal-rights organizations, Canada’s seal hunt continues, with an increased government-set quota of 338,000 baby harp seals (Phoca groenlandica). According to The Canadian Press, about 9,500 seals were killed on Monday, the first day of the season. Harp seals aren’t endangered — in fact, an estimated 6.5 million of them live in Canada — but many believe this hunt will not put the species on good footing for the future.

"The last time Canada allowed this many seals to be killed, the harp seal population was reduced by as much as two thirds within a decade," Rebecca Aldworth, director of the Canadian branch of Humane Society International, said in a statement.

Those fighting the seal hunts — who say the hunting techniques are inhumane and that there is no real economic market for the seal furs — did gain some support in recent weeks: Russia has decided to ban the hunting of baby seals, and the European Union is considering a ban on trade in products made from seals.

Image: Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi), Wikipedia

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  1. 1. MarkT 10:41 am 03/25/2009

    It boggles the mind ho anyone can realistically consider the Atlantic harp seal endangered in any way whatsoever. It has never been considered endangered and culling 330,000 animals from a population of 6.5 million won’t make it so, it’s just not accurate to even suggest that it would.

    Sensationalistic, inaccurate, articles like this are not what I expected from Scientific American.

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  2. 2. wesley 11:37 am 03/25/2009

    Couldn’t agree more MarkT. What are these suppossed inhumane hunting techniques? And if the hunt exists, there must be some economic market for the product. A biased and embarrassing article.

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  3. 3. ChrisP 11:58 am 03/25/2009

    Humane Society International = Humane Society of the United States = Vegan Lobby Group

    Surely you can find a more unbiased source to comment on this?

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  4. 4. Mike1970 12:49 pm 03/25/2009

    How does the state of one, in this case four, unrelated seal species affect what should or should not be done with another. We should also make the correction that there are not any conservation groups contending the Canadian harp seal hunt. Quite the contrary, the IUCN and the WWF both agree the management of the harp seal herd in Canada is a great success. Also, the quota for harp seals is 280,000 in 2009, an increase of 5,000 from last year.Per usual, Rebecca Aldworth is wrong. Kill levels of harp seals has averaged between 250,000 and 300,000 since 1996 with the herd showing continued growth throughout. Lastly, Russia should have banned it’s seal hunt altogether as the White Sea herd has dropped from roughly 2 million to roughly 200,000 animals. Unlike Canada they have shown themselves to be completely inept at managing this species.

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  5. 5. Phia 12:56 pm 03/25/2009

    what kind of nonsense you’re posting here, get information first before talking! Thanks.

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  6. 6. Mike1970 2:04 pm 03/25/2009

    Phia, are you making reference to me? If so how about you back up your blanket criticism with correcting specific points please?

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  7. 7. ozzie123 3:22 pm 03/25/2009

    The newfies are out in full force. At this time of year, they Google "seal hunt" to see what the rest of the world thinks of their neanderthal pastime of baby bashing and then they flood the comment boards with their denial stupidity. The article is accurate and honest and if you read moronic comments, you can be guaranteed it comes from an animal hating newfie.

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  8. 8. MarkT 5:19 pm 03/25/2009

    ozzie123, no matter who or what you believe, the facts are clear here. There are, conservatively speaking, 6.5 million seals in the Atlantic region. These animals have to be controlled, otherwise the ecological balance of the whole region goes out of wack. It might be our fault that that balance has been thrown off and needs to be controlled artificially, but this is why it is up to us to maintain that balance. It needs to be done.

    I understand the emotional side of this. Seeing any living animal get killed is and always will be disturbing no matter how humanely it is done, but so could the same be said for seeing tens or hundreds of thousands of seal carcasses washing up on our beaches when the cycle of natural balance shifts and the seals starve to death – newborns and all.

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  9. 9. ozzie123 9:15 pm 03/25/2009

    And Mark T, there are over 7 billion of the homo sapien species devouring this very planet with greed and consumption – out very lifeline. What do you plan to do about them? Before you spew the same rhetoric about population, take a good hard look in the mirror and look at the real problem.

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  10. 10. MarkT 11:07 pm 03/25/2009

    We have the ability to to control and change our environment (for better or worse). Our intelligence is what made us the dominant species on this particular planet and is what gives us the ability and understanding to not only control the environment, but also know when we should and should not interfere in the natural order of things.

    Like I said, either we control the seal population artificially by conducting an annual seal hunt, or we let the population explode and watch as they all starve themselves to death after having exhausted their food sources.

    If the decision rested with you, what would you choose to do?

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  11. 11. ozzie123 1:08 pm 03/26/2009

    I would choose to let nature take its course just to prove to people like you that nature is best left alone. Human arrogance never works. We cannot control our own population so we are not authorities on the population control of any other species. Humans have manipulated and corrupted nature. People like you think you have all the answers and think that more control over nature is the answer but you give me one example where it has truly worked for the benefit of anyone other than humanity and its greedy ways. We were the wrong choice for the "dominant species". This is showing itself with nature’s revenge and climate change.

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  12. 12. MarkT 3:44 pm 03/26/2009

    Sure, nature is best left alone. I culdn’t agree more. But we, me and you and every other human on this planet is a much a part of nature as any animal species. We evolved into what we are now, somewhat enlightened I guess, but yes, still greedy and we sometimes (oftentimes, it seems) do the wrong thing.

    Decades ago we were greedy and took too many seals for our own profit and gain, causing serious damage to the Atlantic seal herd. We humans ruined the natural balance of life and death in that ecosystem. That is not in debate, but we learned from that mistake. We let the seal population rebound, and rebound they did. But just as wrong as it was to senselessly kill so many seals it is equally as wrong to let their population run out of control. Nature will take it’s course if we did and balance would be restored, eventually, but not before completely destroying the entire ecosystem. Since it was our greed that damaged the ecosystem and nearly wiped our the seal herd, It is our responsibility to now maintain some control as well.

    Personally, I wouldn’t want to see thousands or hundreds of thousands of animals starving to death and taking an entire ecosystem with them when they go. Not just to prove a point.

    For what it’s worth, I came upon this article because I am subscribed to Scientific American’s news feed. I normally enjoy reading the articles and watching videos here, but this seemed so out of place here I had to comment.

    I guess the debate ends here.

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  13. 13. Azucki 7:53 am 03/28/2009

    Pity you missed Europe’s most endangered marine mammal, the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus). Fewer than 600 individuals currently survive, victims of persecution by fishermen, overfishing, habitat deterioration, mass tourism etc. You can find more info here: The Guardian also has a Facebook presence for latest news at:

    Link to this
  14. 14. Azucki 7:54 am 03/28/2009

    Pity you missed Europe’s most endangered marine mammal, the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus). Fewer than 600 individuals currently survive, victims of persecution by fishermen, overfishing, habitat deterioration, mass tourism etc. You can find more info here: The Guardian also has a Facebook presence for latest news at:

    Link to this

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