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Seals on roads, seals in driveways, seals at front doors: A Canadian town faces a marine invasion

Roddickton-Bide Arm is a quaint coastal town on the northern peninsula of the Canadian island province of Newfoundland.

It is also a community facing a menacing threat, one that, in the telling of a local newspaper, is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's chilling 1963 classic "The Birds."

But in the far eastern reaches of North America, the assault isn't aerial. It arrives by sea.

Several dozen harp seals have overrun the town of about 1,000, which may need to amend its designation as the "Moose Capital of the World" if the marine mammal influx continues. The spotted gray animals have been popping up all over Roddickton-Bide Arm.

Some say they started arriving around Christmas. Others claim to have seen them weeks before. But it was this week when they became unmissable. They crawl down roads. They populate parking lots and gas stations. They appear in driveways and backyards.

This is hardly a scene from a Hitchcock film. But it's not a feel-good story either. Two seals were struck by cars and killed on Tuesday, authorities confirmed to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The slick gray coat worn by the animals tends to blend in with the road.

Residents have been unable to help, as national regulations make it illegal to touch marine mammals, though enforcement has proven difficult. So locals have watched as the seals search for food and water, sometimes crying out.

"This is disturbing for the residents to watch," the town's mayor, Sheila Fitzgerald, told CTV News. "We are getting inundated with phone calls from people that are saying, 'You've gotta do something. The seals are in my driveway,' or 'The seals, I see them suffering.'"

The mayor told the CBC that she thinks the animals are confused. "They're pitiful to look at. I mean, they haven't eaten," she said.

The seals may be puzzled by their new surroundings, but the reason they have come ashore is straightforward. Scientists with the country’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans told Canadian media that harp seals migrate south from the Arctic each winter. Early in the season, when it’s still relatively warm, there tends to be little ice near the shore, so the animals hug the coastline. But if the water then freezes behind them, they have trouble getting back out to the open ocean. Disoriented, some find their way to land.

The problem could be compounded by thinning ocean ice, which scientists see as among the alarming consequences of climate change. Harp seals depend on ice cover to mate and breed, and disruptions could also affect their migration schedule; with less ice along the shore, the animals may be beckoned closer to land. In new analysis published Thursday in the journal Science, scientists warned that the oceans were warming more rapidly than previously thought, and exhibited the highest temperatures on record in 2018.

Now, the mayor told NPR, the animals are getting lazy, "a little more tired and lethargic." There isn't a food supply to sustain them through the winter, but the animals, who typically go on land only to breed and rest, can't bring themselves to move on. Seals store enough fat in their blubber to go numerous days without eating.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said Thursday it is trying to get a handle on the situation, with the assistance of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The federal agency said its officers have already removed some seals and are continuing to do so. A response team has been dispatched to Roddickton-Bide Arm.

"We'll keep working with the community to ensure everyone's safety and to determine what next steps need to be taken," DFO promised, reminding Canadians not to approach the seals. "Human interaction can disturb an animal's life processes & can result in its injury or death."

But some residents wondered what could be done, observing that the problem stretched back weeks - and that additional seals were continuing to come ashore.

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