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Unusual Ice Seal Deaths Reported in Western Alaska; NOAA Investigating

Bearded seal on ice floe
A healthy bearded seal, or ugruk. Photo courtesy of Kawerak Subsistence Program.

More than 60 dead ice seals have been reported by communities in the Bering and Chukchi seas within the last month. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries hopes to conduct as many necropsies as possible on these animals as they investigate the cause of this unusual wildlife event.

Since May, bodies of three out of four species of ice seals have been seen in the region, with the ribbon seal being the only type not reported yet.

According to Gay Sheffield with Alaska Sea Grant, last month, 12 dead ringed seals were found in Nome alone. Eight young bearded seals were reported as well on May 10 in Gambell.

NOAA Fisheries Public Affairs Officer Julie Speegle says one hunter from Kotlik, Harold Okitkun, recently counted 18 ice seal carcasses along the shore north of his community. Okitkun also reported dozens on Stuart Island, north of Stebbins.

Another individual to report was a biologist from the National Park Service in Kotzebue. The NPS employee discovered six dead seals between the Kotzebue Airport and Sadie Creek. Other members of the public have reported up to 30 seals between Kivalina and Point Hope.

Some of the reported ice seals have featured hair loss. Speegle says NOAA Fisheries needs to do further studying of these animals to determine if they have similar symptoms as the ice seals affected by an unusual mortality event from more than five years ago.

The agency is working with the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding network to address regional concerns regarding the dead ice seals but cannot say what is affecting this essential resource for Alaska Native communities.

It could be months before NOAA Fisheries has test results from their field work.

In the meantime, if you see a sick or dead seal, please report it to the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, Kawerak’s Subsistence Program, the Eskimo Walrus Commission, or even the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network 24-hour hotline.

Image at top: A healthy bearded seal, or ugruk. Photo courtesy of Kawerak Subsistence Program.

NOAA’s Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network 24-hour Hotline: 877-925-7773

North Slope Borough: North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management: 907-852-0350

Bering Strait Region: Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program: 907-434-1149

Bering Strait Region: Kawerak, Inc., Subsistence Program: 907-443-4265

Bering Strait Region: Eskimo Walrus Commission: 907-443-4380

Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program: 855-443-2397 / 907-434-1149

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