Habitat use by harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) in a seasonally ice-covered region, the western Hudson Bay
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- Bajzak, C.E., Bernhardt, W., Mosnier, A. et al. Polar Biol (2013) 36: 477. doi:10.1007/s00300-012-1274-4
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Over the last few decades, the period of ice cover in Hudson Bay has decreased, owing to climate warming, with breakup occurring approximately 3 weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago. The trend towards lengthening of the open water season has led to speculation that ringed seal numbers would decline, but then harbour seals might become numerous enough to replace ringed seals in the diet of polar bears. The movement patterns of 18 harbour seals equipped with satellite-linked transmitters in the Churchill River estuary (western Hudson Bay) were examined, as well as the dive behaviour of 11 of these seals. During the ice-free period, seals followed a general central place-foraging strategy, making repeated trips between their haul-out site in the Churchill River estuary and nearshore areas (<20 km) near the river mouth and estuary. Seal behaviour changed significantly as ice started to form along the coast of western Hudson Bay: animals remained significantly farther from the Churchill River haul-out site and from the coast and performed longer and deeper dives. However, throughout the entire tracking period, whether ice was present or not, all animals restricted their movements to a narrow band of shallow coastal waters (<50 m depth) along a 600-km stretch of the western Hudson Bay coastline, centred on the Churchill River estuary haul-out site. This natural self-limitation to nearshore shallow waters could restrict the potential for the population to increase in size and replace ringed seals as a primary energy resource for polar bears.