PORTLAND, Maine – Harp seals from Canada are showing up in U.S. waters in greater numbers and farther south than usual, and biologists want to know why.
Small numbers of juvenile harp seals are typically found each winter stranded along the coast of the northeastern United States. But this year, well over 100 adult harp seals – not juveniles – have been spotted, said Mendy Garron, regional marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Gloucester, Mass. The sightings are reported by 14 seal stranding and rehabilitation organizations in New England and the Middle Atlantic.
In some areas they’re reporting three times the normal number of sightings, Garron said. “This year, we’ve had four sightings of adult harp seals in North Carolina, which we’ve never had before. We typically don’t see them that far south.”
Seals are common in New England waters, where the most abundant type is the harbor seal, with a population estimated at about 100,000 the last time they were surveyed a decade ago. Gray seals are the second most common seal.
But those numbers are piddling compared with the number of harp seals found in the northwest Atlantic. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans says 9 million of them can be found off Canada and Greenland.
For now, there is no clear explanation for why more seals are showing up in U.S. waters, said Gordon Waring, who heads the seal program at NOAA’s fisheries science center in Woods Hole, Mass.