Eastern Canada’s annual harp seal hunt will be all but non-existent this year. While that might seem to be positive for baby seals, it’s actually bad news. The New York Times reports that an abnormally mild winter in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is keeping Canadian seal pup hunters —notorious for bludgeoning and skinning helpless pups alive — at home.

Harp seals give birth on and make ice their main habitat, but unseasonably warm weather this winter has left very little ice in the waters off the eastern coast of Canada. The lack of ice has resulted in dire consequences for mother and baby seals. Many pregnant females postponed giving birth for up two weeks while they searched for adequate ice, and the Humane Society International believes this may have forced a number of harp seal mothers to abort in the water.

Many of the seal pups that were born on small slivers of ice have slipped into the water and drowned, while others were crushed by moving ice or condemned to slow starvation after floating away from their mothers. The offspring of mothers that gave birth on beaches or shore ice have become victims of land predators like coyotes. Finally, the dearth of ice will deny any surviving pups vital rest spots once they set out to sea.

According to Environment Canada, ice in the region was at its lowest in more than 40 years when measured through mid-March, a measurement that many local residents see as a sign of global warming.

Biologist Sheryl Fink recently traveled to the gulf, where she observed dead and dying pups on Newfoundland beaches, and the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network, which typically receives one or two annual calls about struggling seal pups, has already fielded about 50 phone calls this year. Despite this, the Canadian government has not formally canceled the 2010 seal hunt, and the Humane Society International reports that one sealskin processor has commissioned 35,000 or more seal pelts.

The only glimmer of hope for harp seals is that the demand for and value of their pelts has dropped significantly, thanks to the recession and a ban by the European Parliament.

This season, lack of ice poses bigger threat to eastern Canada's baby seals than hunters
Hunters in Gulf of St. Lawrence are staying home, but an unusually warm winter is decimating the seal pup population.