Space Images to Help Route Ships Through the Arctic, Saving Baby Seals

Convoys of ships navigating through the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic can be routed bypassing the whitecoats (one month old babies of the harp seals) using assets from space, said ScanEx RDC General Director Vladimir Gershenzon to RIA-Novosti.

The so-called nursery areas (whelping sites) can be viewed from space. “First we were told that it is impossible to see the whitecoats from space, only from the airplane. It turned out it was. There are long winding trails left by their “moms” while moving on ice, when the feed their babies and there are round-shape breathing holes in the ice as final points of these trails. It looks like a well in a desert with pathways meeting together. In the same way trails are meeting at the ice holes, where the seals jump into to get food and to feed their babies. Such ice holes are clearly seen on the highly detailed images and sometimes together with the seals, as there are quite big and grey, unlike their whitecoated babies”, – said Vladimir.

As Mr. Gershenzon noted sometimes ships navigate directly through the harp seal nursery areas bringing a tragedy.

General Director reported that the problem is that when the convoy of ships starts following a specific route, it cannot make a detour. The ice-breaker is escorting several ships and if it has already laid the route through the whelping area, than it is not possible to change it and all the ships will follow this path killing the baby-seals.

“One may ask, why does the ice-breaker need to pass through the nursery area in the first place? The seals have white coats and they cannot be seen on ice. Ship captains are afraid themselves and are upset, when they find out that they are passing through the nursery area, because it is a moral damage to the whole crew. The ship kills baby-seals in dozens and hundreds, they cry for help, crewmembers address to the captain and ask to stop killing. Captains are always glad when we help them avoiding this massacre by plotting other routes, bypassing the harp seal whelping areas. By the way in 2010, by the request from the Federal Agency for Marine and River Transportation we illustrated, where there were areas of consolidated ice and where were the seals. In other word we helped estimating the ice situation in the White Sea and detecting the nursery sites. After that we submitted our recommendations for better ship routes”, – said Mr. Gershenzon.

In 2009 a decision was made in Russia to prohibit whitecoats and the harp seal hunting on the entire territory of the White Sea. Grey seals and hooded seals hunting prohibition was also imposed. Annualy 20-30 thousand valuable whitecoat firs were prepared and sold to Norway in the White Sea. The reasons of the White Sea harp seal population reduction are still the same: global climate changes, brining to the reduction in the area and lifetime of ice floes, where seals are breeding and uncontrolled navigation of ships in early spring through the seal whelping areas. Adverse impact of the ship navigation has been largely reduced in the past years, thanks to the application of the operational satellite-based imagery.

Source: RIA-Novosti (