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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mission to Save Starving Seals Called 'Stupid'

Forty-three softhearted sailors who offered to risk their lives to save thousands of baby harp seals were ordered Saturday to drop the controversial rescue mission after reports of 200,000 to 350,000 starving animals turned out to be grossly exaggerated.

In fact, there were about 5,000 seals in trouble — a fraction of the number clubbed to death for their pelts every year in northern Russia.

Yet even had there been hundreds of thousands of desperate, starving seals trapped on the ice in the White Sea, scientists said the planned rescue effort was misconceived from the start.

"The very idea of sending a rescue party sounds phony," said Yury Timoshenko, senior researcher on harp seals at the Arkhangelsk Polar Ocean and Fish Research Institute, who has been studying the animals for more than 40 years.

"We kill tens of thousands of seals a year, and all of a sudden someone comes up with this ridiculous idea. The need to save the seals in the White Sea has been exaggerated since the very beginning," he insisted in a telephone interview Friday, calling for the rescue effort to be abandoned.

Vladimir Potelov, another top seal expert at the institute, set off the initial alarm after an aerial survey April 27, announcing that the mass death of 200,000 to 350,000 baby seals was inevitable.

The seals, he reported, were trapped on ice floes in the White Sea where there was inadequate food available. The ice floes normally drift into the Barents Sea, where food is plentiful, but they were slower in breaking away from the shore this year.

The scientist was astounded by the response. Foreign journalists flew to the area. Sailors from the Murmansk Shipping Co., touched by the plight of the animals, volunteered to mount a rescue mission. A meeting of 13 top experts was convened at the Emergency Situations Ministry.

"Somebody has to help them. We can't stay aloof from this tragedy. We firmly believe that it is not a regional matter but a global problem," Vladimir Blinov of Murmansk Shipping said by phone Thursday, explaining the company's decision to send an icebreaker and a crew of 43.

He also admitted quite frankly that the men didn't have a clue how to go about the job.

"We don't know much about saving seals, but all the sailors here understand that somebody should go out there and do this job," he said gamely.

Potelov was scathing about the well-meaning sailors, describing their mission as "sheer idiocy."

For a start, he pointed out in an interview Thursday, it would not be easy to rescue the seals, who are not helpless babies but 2 months old and agile.

"It is a nice but extremely stupid and primitive idea," he declared. "You can chase them as much as you like, jumping between ice floes and drowning or breaking your skull, but you will never catch a single one of them."

Other experts, meanwhile, warned that the ice in the area was treacherously mushy.

"Ordering people to land on the ice could well mean that there were more dead people than rescued seals," said Timoshenko after a second air survey Friday established that there were only a few thousand seals in the area, not 200,000.

"There is no sign of a catastrophe that would require human interference," said Maria Vorontsova, director of the Russia office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who was present during Friday's air survey.

On Saturday morning, the shipping company pulled out of the rescue.

The Sea Mammal Research Unit at St. Andrews University in Britain estimates the global population of harp seals at 7 million to 8 million.

Vorontsova said of much greater concern is the annual mass slaughter of seal cubs, which she described as barbaric and cruel.