Hydro projects pose 'a real threat.'

Freshwater seals may get endangered designation


Harbour seals living in a string of lakes in Nunavik may soon be listed as an endangered species.

The decision will depend on what the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans hears until March 31, the deadline for opinions on whether the freshwater harbour seals should be considered as endangered under the Species at Risk Act.

The seals, officially known as the Lac des loups marins harbour seals, make their home in a string of lakes 150 kilometres inland from the Hudson Bay coast.

The lakes located east of Umiujaq and north of Kuujjuaraapik are known in Inuttitut as "kasigiaksiovik" (place of harbour seals), in English as the Upper and Lower Seal lakes, and in French as les lacs des loups marins.

These inland seals are the only known population of harbour seals in the world to spend the entire year in lakes and rivers, without any time in an ocean.

Researchers say the seals separated from ocean-dwelling harbour sealsbetween 3,000 and 8,000 years ago. Since then, they've developed into a unique

sub-species, which reproduce earlier in the spring than ­harbour seals who live year-round in the ocean.

Cree say the seals are smaller and darker than marine seals and that their meat tastes different. Inuit say their pelts are darker, soft and shinier than ocean seals and that their heads have a different shape.

The seals' diet includes whitefish, lake trout and brook char. In the winter, they breathe through cracks and air pockets, and, because no birth has ever been observed, it's thought they give birth early in the spring under the ice.

There are anywhere from 100 to 600 of the seals remaining, although records from the 19th century suggest a larger population before hunters started to use rifles.

At the moment, there is "clearly a small population" of the Lac des loups marins harbour seals, says the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada assessment.

COSEWIC determined the seals were endangered in 2007, although they haven't been officially put on Canada's species at risk list.

But there's some urgency now to deciding whether or not they should be listed.

That's because hydroelectric projects pose "a real threat" to the survival of these seals, notes a consultation book on the Species at Risk Act web site.

The impacts expected from hydroelectric development include the disappearance of under-ice chambers and ice-free areas as well as changes in prey and increases in mercury.

"The fact that these seals reside in a relatively restricted area makes them particularly vulnerable," the consultation book notes.

And Hydro Québec, Quebec's power corporation, wants to keep the door open to future power projects along the Nastapoka River watershed, which includes the Seal lakes.

The borders of the future provincial park Tursujuq also include part of the seal's habitat.

At last year's public hearings on the park, Hydro Québec said it didn't want the Tursujuq to be enlarged because, if larger, the park would be in the way of its future plans.

However, some environmental groups want Tursujuq enlarged so the future park will include the entire Nastapoka River watershed and offer the harbour seals' habitat more protection.

If the Lac des loups marins harbour seals are declared "endangered," this could impact on Hydro Québec's activities because a recovery plan for the seals will likely limit any development in the area.

More information on how to participate in the consultation on the fate of the Lac des loups marins harbour seals can be found by going to:


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