Sealing ships trapped in ice off coast of Newfoundland

Friday, April 20, 2007

Sealing ships trapped in ice
Image: Source:DFO.

For the past week, approximately 100 sealing ships have been trapped in ice floes off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. The ships and their crew had been participating in the annual seal hunt off Canada's easternmost province.

Several of the vessels have been damaged by the ice and supplies are now running low for those sailors awaiting rescue by the Canadian Coast Guard. As of Thursday, 6:00 p.m. EDST, some 20 crew members, out of an estimated 400, had been rescued.

A Coast Guard icebreaker, the Sir Wilfred Grenfell, on mission to free the trapped ships, itself became stuck in the ice. A Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) spokesperson indicated to CTV News that, although the Grenfell had since been freed, another icebreaker, the Ann Harvey, was now trapped. "It's just such heavy ice that even ice breakers are having trouble," said Erika Pittman, a communications officer with the DFO.

In addition to the crushing ice, extreme weather conditions have been hampering rescue efforts. Pittman suggested that conditions wouldn't improve until sometime next week. The amount and thickness of the pack ice, according to Pittman, is the worst it has been for sealers in the past 15 years.

In addition to three icebreakers on hand, the Coast Guard is flying helicopters in to provide food and support to the stranded sailors. Most of the sealing ship captains have refused to abandon their ships, instead staying with them and hoping for a change in conditions or to be freed by the Coast Guard.

"Usually you try to stay with the ship because you think the safety is with the ship because the ship is big, but sometimes it is too late. In this case, we're hoping that as it changes and the breakers and helicopters are there and we can get them all out," said Brian Penney, a superintendent with the Coast Guard.

"They're putting a lot of effort into pulling them out," said Penny. "But the sheer numbers, it's a very, very slow process." According to Penny, approximately 15 of the longliners ships have had their hulls damaged by the ice to the extent that the ships are at risk of sinking.

Critics of the seal hunt point out that the annual hunt is not only "cruel to animals", but is also a dangerous occupation for the sealers. When sealers have to be rescued by the Coast Guard, "Canadian taxpayers foot the bill," suggested Rebecca Aldworth, director of Canadian wildlife issues for the Humane Society of the United States.