2018-04-05 / Front Page

Harp Seals Sign of Activism Success

By Charles Avenengo


Harbor seals like this one occasionally strand on Aquidneck Island beaches. (Photo by Bob Weaver) Harbor seals like this one occasionally strand on Aquidneck Island beaches. (Photo by Bob Weaver) While many Rhode Islanders are familiar with the official state marine mammal, the harbor seal, they may not be aware that three other seal species inhabit local waters. One of these, the harp seal, has played a significant role in environmental activism history.

In 1972, the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, protecting whales, dolphins and seals in the United States. Within a decade, seals began to appear regularly in Rhode Island waters. Initially, these were harbor seals. But a few years later, a less familiar species, the harp seal, was spotted in local waters.

The Mystic Aquarium Animal Rescue program, in Mystic, Connecticut, began keeping stranding records for seals in 1975. The aquarium has the federal marine mammal stranding permit for Connecticut and Rhode Island. According to statistics provided by the aquarium, the first harp seal stranding on our shores in 300 years was recorded in 1989.

Since then, the aquarium has responded to 321 harp seal strandings, with 225 registered in Rhode Island. Although the bulk of these strandings occurred along the outer beaches of South County, a number of harp seals have stranded on Aquidneck Island.

While harp seals look similar to the more familiar harbor seal, there are differences. Perhaps the most obvious differences are their numbers and location. Harbor seals utilize rocky haul-outs, while harp seals prefer sandy stretches of beach.

The local environmental group, Save the Bay, conducts annual counts of seals. The highest coordinated single-day count was in March 2016 when 603 seals were counted at 26 sites in Narragansett Bay. These were predominantly harbor seals, though you can also find gray seals and hooded seals in local waters. Both are significantly larger. Like harbor seals, grey seals are found on rocky outcrops and ledges, while hooded seals are seldom encountered.

Over the years, some haul-outs, like Rome Point off North Kings- town and Seal Rock off Brenton Point on Ocean Drive, have recorded more than 100 seals at a single time.

Unlike harbor seals, harp seals are solitary. Invariably juveniles, they are smaller and have less spots than harbor seals. It has been suggested that harp seals prefer beaches because those locations resemble their natal ice flows and offer sanctuaries for rest.

The arrival of the harp seals in Southern New England over the past few decades marks a success story in the annals of environmental history. In 1976, Greenpeace, the environmental activist organization, launched a radical campaign against the killing of baby harp seals in Canada. At the time, the Canadian seal hunt was the largest marine mammal hunt in the world.

Harp seal pups were in demand due to their fluffy, snow-white coat. When captured in photography, the “whitecoat” images are among the most iconic in the natural world. The fur and skins were also desirable in the fashion industry.

To combat the hunt, Greenpeace used radical techniques, including dying the “whitecoats” with green paint, rendering them useless for consumers. Additionally, the campaign featured images of the clubbing of the baby seals on the ice floes.

Drawing on the emotions of consumers worldwide, protests and boycotts ensued, and the bottom fell out of the commercial value of the pelts. As a result, a moratorium on seal hunting was enacted in Canada in 1985. Four years later, Mystic Aquarium recorded the first stranded harp seal in Rhode Island waters.

David St. Aubin, the former director of Research and Veterinary services at Mystic Aquarium, said that once they received protection, harp seal numbers ballooned from one million to six million adults.

“Now, with all those adults returning from feeding to their breeding grounds on the ice, that’s a lot of displacement,” he said.

Because of this overcrowding, he said, the juveniles, not yet ready to mate, dispersed from the breeding area to waters further south in order to concentrate on feeding. This displacement accounts for the rise in harp seal numbers in local waters.

However, the activism came at a cost. Because of the moratorium, a number of villages in Newfoundland, Labrador and the Magdalen Islands suffered economically. In response, the moratorium was partially lifted and currently harp seal hunting is allowed, although in reduced numbers.

So, the next time you visit the beach and see a seal, take a second look. It might be a harp seal and its presence could be attributed to the pioneering environmental activism of the 1970s.

Where to See Seals

To see seals in their natural habitat, Save the Bay offers Seal Watch cruises departing from Bowen’s Wharf through April 22. Trip times and prices vary. Consult savebay.org for further information.

If a seal is encountered along the coast, federal law prohibits harassing the animal. It is possible the seal is simply resting and might soon be on its way. If it is determined to be injured, contact the local police department or the Mystic Aquarium Stranding 24-hour hotline at 860-572- 5955, ext. 107.

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