You never know whom you might encounter while walking along a sandy beach in New York Harbor. Early this morning I met a furry, spotted sea creature.
A juvenile Harp seal was seen resting and relaxing on a beach along the southern shore of New York Harbor. The seal appeared to be in good shape, plump and roly-poly. It had been eating well, at least for the last few days.
Wildlife biologists with NJ Marine Mammal Stranding Center were called. They agreed the seal looked healthy and just needed time to rest. It cautioned people to keep a safe distance away from the seal, over 500 feet. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 dictates that a person must maintain a safe distance so as not to cause stress or harm to a wild animal.
The young seal needed to sleep. It was tired, mostly likely from a long journey up north. Young Harp seals tend to be a highly migratory, swimming over 1,600 miles in search of safe places to rest and forage for food before becoming old enough to mate.
My best guess is the Harp seal is from the northwest Atlantic population, the closest population to New York Harbor. It breeds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. Two other mating populations of Harp seals exist in the Northern Hemisphere in east Greenland, near Jan Mayen Island, and the Barents Sea, located off the northern coasts of Norway and Russia.
While seals are no strangers to New York Harbor this time of year, seeing a Harp seal is special. Harp seals are true Arctic seals, more at home swimming in chilly waters and resting on pack ice and ice floes in the Arctic and North Atlantic Ocean, then in turbid tidal waters and sandy beaches of the harbor.
Yet, sightings of juvenile Harp seals in New York Harbor have increased in the last decade, during the winter months. Individual young Harp seals may journey south between early February and late May. Sightings of adults are less common but slightly increasing.
Although young Harp seals resemble Harbor seals, there are some notable differences in their appearance. Harp seals get their name for the dark “saddle” or “harp” shape marking on the backs of adults. Pups are born with fine white fur, which is replaced after three weeks for a gray coat with dark spots known as a “beater coat.” Immature Harp seals of 14 months are older have larger spots and are called “bedlamers.” It takes usually 4 to 6 years for Harp seals to mature. Life expectancy is about 35 years.
Harp seals feed on a variety of fish, crabs, krill and other crustaceans and amphipods. They can dive over 300 feet in the water to forage for a meal.
Harp seals are the most abundant seal species in the Northern Hemisphere and according to the Marinebio website, the northwest Atlantic population contains between 4 to 6.4 million seals.
While this should be good news, unfortunately Harp seal pups are still being hunted and killed for their whitecoat fur and oil. People are still conducting seal hunts in northern Canada. Marinebio stated on their website that “the hunt in Canada has been described as the largest slaughter of marine mammals in the world.” Greenland, Norway, and Russia also conduct seal hunts of newborn Harp seals.
Obviously there is a connection between New York Harbor and places where Harp seals mate and raise young. As we move forward in the twenty-first century, there is absolutely no need or scientific reason to slaughter seals, especially newborn pups. If you care about wildlife then please oppose the seal hunt.
For more information on what you can do to stop the seal hunt please check out the Harpseals.org website.
For more information about the ecology of Harp Seals, check out Marinebio.
If you see a seal that appears injured, entangled, sick, or being harassed by a person, in New Jersey call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center at 609-266-0538. In New York, call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at 631-369-9829. These two organizations have the authority to help stranded or sick marine mammals and sea turtles. Wildlife experts with the help of trained volunteers will determine if an animal is in need of medical attention, needs to be moved from a populated area, or just needs time to rest.