Harp seals from Canada are showing up in US 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 US’ northeastern coast.
However, this year, more than 100 adult harp seals have been spotted, said Mendy Garron, regional marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The sightings have been reported by 14 seal stranding and rehabilitation organizations in New England and the Middle Atlantic states.
“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.”
Seals are common in waters off the northeastern New England states, 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.
However, those numbers are tiny 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.
A decade ago, harp seal sightings off Maine were rare, said Lynda Doughty, marine mammal stranding coordinator for the state’s Department of Marine Resources. The numbers have picked up the past few years, and this year there have been 40 documented sightings.
For now, there is no clear explanation why more seals are showing up in US waters, said Gordon Waring, who heads the seal program at the agency’s fisheries science center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
They could be making their way south because of climatic conditions or perhaps in search of food, Waring said.
“Whether they’re following food down or whatever, we don’t really have a good understanding of it,” he said.
Regardless of the reason, biologists are taking notice, Doughty said.
“We’re all kind of raising our eyes,” she said.
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