St. Anthony — A charter plane full of frozen harp seal carcasses may not sound like exciting cargo, but its arrival in St. Johns last week was hotly anticipated by scientists.
The Twin Otter travelled up to Baffin Island and back down along the Labrador coast picking up the frozen seals that washed ashore over the past fortnight.
Its final stop was St. Anthony airport, where five seals found at Eddies Cove East last week were loaded and flown to the capital city, where Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists hope to unravel the mystery behind their deaths.
DFO seal expert Garry Stenson said last week more than 200 harp seals had washed ashore over the past two weeks for no apparent reason.
The first reports came from The Northern Pen, which informed DFO of dead seals washing ashore following the Christmas Eve storm surge that struck St. Lunaire-Griquet, Great Brehat and St. Carol’s.
Since then, the deaths have mounted.
“We’ve never received reports of this many deaths coming ashore, especially in groups of this size,” Stenson said.
“Some areas there have been small numbers, one or two; in others, such as in Boat Harbour, there has been as many as 20.”
Stenson said DFO officers visited Boat Harbour and inspected the animals.
“There were so signs of injury and they looked in relatively good condition,” he said.
“They were fat, so it wasn’t starvation.
“We took some tissue samples which will be sent to the provincial vet who will look at them in the next couple of days.”
But it might take whole carcasses to solve the puzzle.
“The vets will be able to look at the whole seal and start from the start, work in a methodical way that may reveal the cause of the death,” Stenson said.
A survey in 2008 estimated the Northwest Atlantic harp seal population was more than eight million strong.
“These (deaths) are small numbers in respect to the entire population,” he said, “but it is always worrying when you see something like this that is unexplained.
“We have good healthy seal population, but we need to understand what’s going on with sources of mortality.”
Last year’s higher seal pup mortality was blamed on a lack of sea ice.
Back in 2005, more than 2,000 dead white coats and blue coats washed ashore along the Northern Peninsula and in Southern Labrador.
Stenson said the lack-of-ice theory could be the reason for this year’s deaths.
“We will take it all into consideration,” he said.
Stenson said a claim linking the seals’ deaths to last year’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was “unlikely.”
“But like all good scientists, we are not going to rule anything out,” he said.
Another theory is that tumultuous seas and storm surges could be tiring the seals, but Stenson thinks that’s unlikely because they spend a lot of their life in the sea.
“We have satellite tracked seals up to a year and they spend a great deal of time in the water, sleeping on the surface and they are used to the open ocean,” he said.
“Whatever it is, we hope the necropsy will tell us.”
As for how you fill a charter plane full of dead seals, the answer is simple.
“We took the seats out of the Twin Otter, laid down a tarp and put all the frozen seals in bags,” he said.
“It’s not pretty, but it is effective. Because of the weather, you don’t need to put them in a freezer. You can just leave them outside and they’ll freeze. … It takes about an entire day for them to thaw out.
“It will give us an opportunity to study them closely. It’s going to be really helpful in finding out the cause of death.”
The Northern Pen