Ice cuts off dozens of seals' access to sea in Canadian town

LONDON, ONTARIO • The intruders arrived during the night with the wind and high tide. By the morning of Jan 3, it seemed like the little Canadian town had been overrun.

Seals, dozens of them. Seals on the beach, on the streets and driveways, in the parks and backyards.

More than a week later, they are still there in Roddickton-Bide Arm, a remote little town on the island of Newfoundland, Mayor Sheila Fitzgerald said last Friday.

And it has become clear that the animals, hungry and distressed, are stranded, unable to find their way back to sea.

Harp seals spend winters in the waters off Newfoundland and it is common for them to go ashore at times, and to swim into bays like the long, narrow inlet that borders Roddickton-Bide Arm, said Mr Garry Stenson, head of the marine mammal section at Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

"If the ice freezes up behind them, they have a harder time getting access to water," he told Canadian broadcaster CBC. "It's almost like they get going in a direction and just keep going, hoping they're going to eventually find water."

The seals in Roddickton-Bide Arm, each one about 1.5m long and weighing about 136kg, crowded around the town's two brooks that do not freeze over in the winter. They then spread out, rolling around in the deep snow and barking like dogs.

A stranded seal crawls on the snow on a road in Roddickton-Bide Arm, a remote town on the island of Newfoundland, in Canada. Dozens of them, hungry and distressed, are unable to find their way back to the sea. PHOTO: REUTERS

Residents began to worry that the seals were there to stay through the winter - or might starve.

Ms Fitzgerald said: "They look so cute, but they're still wild animals."

She said the town hall was getting calls from people who had seen pictures and videos of the seals online, asking why residents did not help or feed the seals.

But in Canada, it is illegal to disturb marine mammals - not to mention potentially dangerous ones - including touching, feeding and even getting near them.

The mayor said there are at least 40 seals in and around Roddickton-Bide Arm, possibly many more.

Officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are in the town to assess the number of animals and find ways to help them get back to sea.

Officers from the Fisheries and Oceans department try to capture and relocate a stranded seal, found near residences, to open water. PHOTO: REUTERS

The situation is less than ideal for the residents as well as the animals.

The seals' silver-grey fur helps them blend in with the colour of icy roads that are dusted with sand in winter. People try to avoid the seals, but two of them have died after being run over by vehicles.

Wildlife experts have warned that, like dogs, the seals can get aggressive when scared - and bite.

Millions of harp seals live in and around the far north Atlantic and Arctic. They are known for their pups, whose white coats help them blend in with snow and ice.

Ordinarily, the people of Roddickton-Bide Arm have no problem with the creatures, but now, they are ready to get back to their traditional wildlife boast, that the town is the "Moose Capital of the World".

"We're ready for them to move on," Ms Fitzgerald said. "Right now, the whole of the talk is about seals."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2019, with the headline 'Ice cuts off dozens of seals' access to sea in Canadian town'. Print Edition | Subscribe