Seals struggling with shorter winters in the waters around P.E.I.

A lack of sea ice coverage this past winter is leading to a reduced presence of some seal species in the water surrounding P.E.I.

Seals rely on thick, packed sea ice to gather in safety to breed and hunt, raising their vulnerable young away from the reach of land or water predators.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Northumberland Strait featured a distinct lack of this type of ice in 2024. Annual ice amounts still vary wildly from year to year, but Environment Canada data indicates a trend towards warmer, shorter winter seasons with less ice coverage in the Atlantic Canada region.

Joanie Van de Walle, a biologist at the Maurice Lamontagne Institute in Mont-Joli and an expert in marine population dynamics with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, studies multiple seal species found throughout the North Atlantic.

“This year was the worst that we’ve seen in terms of ice conditions,” Van de Walle said in an interview with SaltWire on April 5.

During air observations of the Northumberland Strait and Gulf of St. Lawrence in February and March 2024, not a single pupping harp or hooded seal was recorded. This was the first year that no harp seal pups were seen in those areas, Van de Walle said.

“We think this year because there wasn’t enough ice for them to pup in the southern gulf, then they probably just decided to move northward and have their pups there,” Van de Walle said.

Numbers vary, but between 30,000 and 500,000 harp seal pups are born off the coast of the North Atlantic Ocean every year, Van de Walle said. To see none in the waters surrounding P.E.I. was an unfortunate surprise.

“We saw a couple of harp seals, grey seals and harbour seals but not any big patches like we would typically observe during a good ice year,” Van de Walle said.

Some seal species, such as grey seals, prefer to gather and breed on shorelines, but species such as hooded and harp seals still hold pack ice as their top choice. When presented with no other alternative, these seal species are forced to breed on the shore.

Danielle Pinder, the manager of response operations and a senior responder at the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), told SaltWire there has been an increase in seal sightings on land in recent years during breeding season due to the reduction of sea ice.

“On the pack ice, they’re mainly just resting, but here on shore they tend to get a little lost, a little confused. They’ve got immediate access to land and they’re really not sure what’s happening, they’re trying to figure it out, so they just tend to wander sometimes,” Pinder said in an interview on April 15.

On April 4, an adult seal was reported to MARS on a farm in Long River, P.E.I. The seal was monitored by MARS volunteers until it was caught by AVC staff on April 9.

“As the seal was monitored for days, was thin and failed to return to the water, prognosis was considered poor, and so euthanasia was elected for humane reasons,” Apryl Munro, external engagement officer for the AVC, told SaltWire on April 15.

When seals gather on the shore to breed or appear in random locations, it is important to avoid all interactions with them, Pinder said.

Pinder encourages people who stumble upon a seal on the shore or somewhere unexpected to take pictures and video, document the behaviour of the seal and, most importantly, not interact with them, if possible.

“Always keep a distance from the seal, a healthy distance,” Pinder said.

Caitlin Coombes is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter, a position funded by the federal government. She can be reached by email at and followed on X @caitlin_coombes.

Caitlin Coombes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Guardian