Ecology of ringed seals (Phoca hispida) in western Hudson Bay, Canada

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Vincent-Chambellant, Magaly
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Recently, Hudson Bay experienced unidirectional trends in temperature, sea-ice extent, time of break-up, and length of the open-water season. Predicted impacts on population dynamics of ice-associated species include habitat loss and shift in prey availability. The ringed seal (Phoca hispida) depends on a stable ice platform with sufficient snow depth and a productive open-water season for reproduction and survival. Evidence of ringed seal sensitivity to environmental variations has been reported, but mechanisms involved were poorly understood. In western Hudson Bay, density, life-history traits, and diet of ringed seals were monitored over two decades, providing an opportunity to understand the effects of climatic variations on the population dynamics of this long-lived carnivore. Ringed seal density was estimated through strip-transect analyses after aerial surveys were flown in western Hudson Bay in late spring during the annual moult in the 1990s and 2000s. During these periods, ringed seals were also sampled from Inuit subsistence fall harvests In Arviat, NU, and ages, reproductive status, percentage of pups in the harvest, body condition, and diet were assessed. Strong inter-annual variations in these parameters were observed, and a decadal cycle was suggested and related to variations in the sea-ice regime. The cold and heavy ice conditions that prevailed in western Hudson Bay in 1991-92 likely induced a decrease in pelagic productivity, reducing the availability to ringed seals of sand lances (Ammodytes sp.), their major prey. The nutritional stress endured, combined with a strong predation pressure, led to a decrease in ringed seal reproductive performances, pup survival, and density during the 1990s. The recovery of ringed seal demographic parameters and number in the 2000s was associated with the immigration of pups, juveniles, and young adults into western Hudson Bay. Impact of current climatic trends on ringed seal population dynamics was not apparent, but considering the limited range of environmental variations tolerated by ringed seals, the response of this species to climate warming might be of a catastrophic type. Ringed seals were found to be good indicators of ecosystem changes, and long-term monitoring of the species in Hudson Bay should be a priority.
density, distribution, life-history, body condition, reproduction, diet, spring ice break-up, temporal variation, snow depth, ice cover, climate change