It’s seal pupping season along the North Atlantic coast and wildlife officials in both Canada and the United States are warning the public to keep their distance from seals and newly born seal pups, even ones that appear to be abandoned by their mothers.
That means no selfies, say the officials.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Newfoundland and Labrador recently dealt with a case of a harbour seal pup being taken home by a man who thought the pup had been abandoned by its mother.
Upon hearing of the incident, the DFO initially arranged for the man to put the pup back on the beach where he’d found it, hoping that the mother would take it back. It was to no avail, however, and it left officers scrambling to find a safe home for the pup.
“When it was very apparent that it was not going to be reclaimed by its mother, the fishery officers brought it back…so we checked to see if there was anything that could be done for the animal,” says Dr. Garry Stenson, lead seal researcher with the DFO. “We hope that it will do well but we don’t know.”
Fortunately, a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Seaforth, Nova Scotia, was willing to take in the pup who was likely still at a nursing stage when pulled from its environment.
Mother seals leave their pups unattended on occasion to feed, but they are never far away, say marine officers. And even though pups may appear distressed -their cries can sound like a baby crying- they will not be left alone for long.
Venturing near to or coming into contact with a baby seal is potentially harmful for the seal, as its mother may then reject it, but also for humans, since seals are wild animals and can do serious damage when they attack.
“Seals have powerful jaws, and can leave a lasting impression,” says the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a release. “When you get too close to a wild animal, you risk stressing or threatening it, and stressed animals are much more likely to act unpredictably.”
The Canadian government recently announced $5.7 million in funding to help Indigenous communities to market and sell sealskin products, including parkas, boots and handicrafts, worldwide. Set up as the Certification and Market Access Program for Seals, the five-year program aims to help deliver Indigenous seal products to the European Union, where a ban on seal products has been in effect since 2009, only to be adjusted last year to allow for Indigenous peoples to sell their wares in the EU.
“Seal harvesting is an important part of the traditional way of life in the North. It is a valuable source of food and income for thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous families in remote coastal communities in the Arctic, Quebec and Atlantic Canada,” reads a recent statement from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to mark “Seal Day on Parliament Hill 2016.”
Meanwhile, animal rights groups are pushing Prime Minister Trudeau and his government to end the commercial seal hunt in light of recently obtained documents which show that while 2014 seal product exports came in at roughly $500,000, an estimated $2.5 million per year is currently being spent on monitoring the seal hunt.
“The industry makes no economic sense,” says Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Humane Society International Canada. “We know the seal hunt would have ended years ago if it was left to the market. We know our campaign is winning and we are now at a crossroads. We need to all move forward together beyond commercial sealing.”