ABSTRACT: The effects of climate change on high latitude regions are becoming increasingly evident, particularly in the rapid decline of sea ice cover in the Arctic. Many high latitude species dependent on sea ice are being forced to adapt to changing habitats. Harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus) are an indicator species for changing high-latitude ecosystems. This study analyzed multiple factors including ice cover, demographics, and genetic diversity, which could affect harp seal stranding rates along the eastern coast of the United States. Ice cover assessments were conducted for the month of February in the Gulf of St. Lawrence whelping region from 1991–2010 using remote sensing data, and harp seal stranding data were collected over the same time period. Genetic diversity, which may affect how quickly species can adapt to changing climates, was assessed using ten microsatellite markers to determine mean d2 in a subset of stranded and by-caught (presumably healthy) seals sampled along the northeast U.S. coast. Our study found a strong negative correlation (R2 = 0.49) between ice cover in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and yearling harp seal strandings, but found no relationship between sea ice conditions and adult strandings. Our analysis revealed that male seals stranded more frequently than females during the study period and that this relationship was strongest during light ice years. In contrast, we found no significant difference in mean d2 between stranded and by-caught harp seals. The results demonstrate that sea ice cover and demographic factors have a greater influence on harp seal stranding rates than genetic diversity, with only a little of the variance in mean d2 among stranded seals explained by ice cover. Any changes in these factors could have major implications for harp seals, and these findings should be considered in the development of future management plans for the Arctic that incorporate climate variability.
Soulen BK, Cammen K, Schultz TF, Johnston DW (2013) Factors Affecting Harp Seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) Strandings in the Northwest Atlantic. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68779. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068779