Quebec’s rare lake seals at risk, scientist warns
A quirk of natural history cut these animals off from the sea thousands of years ago; now human development threatens their fragile habitat.
IQALUIT – They’ve been called the seals that came out of the sea.
As glaciers retreated across what is now northern Quebec 8,000 years ago, scientists suspect the harbor seals were gradually cut off from the ocean and trapped in newly-formed lakes.
Today, between 100 and 600 animals still inhabit Lacs des Loups Marins, a chain of lakes 160 kilometres east of Umiujaq. They’re believed to be the only harbor seals in the world that live year-round in freshwater.
Skittish and few in numbers, the habitat of this unique herd is also very vulnerable.
“These seals are completely unprotected,” says researcher Richard Smith who recently completed a four-year study of the seals.
While doing field work at Lacs des Loups Marins he says he often saw mining prospectors set off explosives near the water.
Because the seals overwinter and give birth in protected air pockets beneath the lakes’ frozen surface, Smith says any hydroelectric development in the region that introduces pollution or disrupts ice patterns will also threaten the animals’ habitat.
The Canadian Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife has placed the seals on Canada’s list of vulnerable animals. But Smith would like to see Canada and Quebec do more to protect the few remaining inland seals by declaring the Lacs des Loups Marins an ecological reserve, off-limits to intrusive human behavior.
This could give the seals some protection against any future hydroelectric development or mining exploration.
“This population is an appalling example of how backwards Canada is in protecting endangered species,” Smith says.
Landlocked seal populations elsewhere – in Lake Ontario, Greenland and Japan, for example – have either vanished or are endangered.
The Lower Seal Lakes lie above the 55th parallel in Inuit territory, although Crees have traditionally set traps near the lakes. Both Cree and Inuit occasionally hunted the seals in the past.
The 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement lists these seals as a protected species, but this protection has no force of law.
Deciding whether Quebec or Ottawa has jurisdiction over the seals is also problematic, since they are marine mammals living in freshwater.
Marine mammals normally fall under federal jurisdiction. The Lacs des Loups Marins, however, live inland.
Trout-eating lake seals unique
The earliest historic record of the seals goes back to 1754 and a map describing the Lacs des Loups Marins region.
A 1936 expedition to study the seals nearly ended in disaster for team of American researchers; they had to resort to eating both specimens they had captured for study.
Scientists continued to wonder whether these seals were a distinct population. They speculated that the seals were somehow able to return to Hudson Bay, despite the rapids and waterfalls separating Lacs des Loups Marins from the bay.
That’s why Smith decided to attach satellite collars to 11 lake seals. The results of the tracking were clear.
“They stay inside the lake,” Smith says. “And each one stays in his specific nook and cranny.”
Examination of hair, blubber and blood also showed that the seals survive solely on a diet of freshwater fish such as lake and brook trout.
Crees, who sometimes harvest the seals, say that their flesh is sweeter tasting than their marine cousins.
Paulusi Cookie, and other hunters now living in Umiujaq, say Inuit are aware of the lake seals’ existence, but they haven’t hunted any for a long time.With files from Anne Cheng in Umiujaq.