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Canadian Harp Seals Find Their Way To US Waters

March 21, 2011

Harp seal sightings along the coast of northeastern United States have been recorded by 14 seal stranding and rehabilitation organizations in New England and the Middle Atlantic, according to Clarke Canfield of the Associated Press (AP).

It is unusual for large numbers of adult harp seals to be spotted, but over 100 of them have been found in U.S. waters, Mendy Garron, the regional marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Gloucester, Massachusetts, told the AP. Juvenile harp seals are more commonly found stranded each winter, but these numbers are usually small.

Ten years ago, a survey was conducted and the most common type of seal in New England waters was the harbor seal, then a population of about 100,000, with Gray seals coming in second.

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans reports 9 million harp seals off of Canada and Greenland. If the migration continues, the harbor and gray seals will be outnumbered.  This year alone, there have been 40 documented sightings ““ double the number reported last year.

Lynda Doughty, marine mammal stranding coordinator for Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, says these so-called ice seals have made their way onto land across the snow and ice along Maine’s shores. They typically are found near shore ledges, and in coves and harbors. But some have made their way into parking lots and backyards ““ even on an Oceanside golf course in Scarborough.

According to Gordon Waring, head of the seal program at NOAA’s fisheries science center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, there is no clear explanation for why harp seals have been showing up in U.S. waters. He told AP, “These animals are known to wander a lot. Whether they’re following food down or whatever, we don’t really have a good understanding of it.”

Garron and other seal organizations will also look at environmental trends to see if this has any influence on the harp seal range.

Biologists are raising their eyes and taking notice, regardless of the reason, says Doughty.

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