(CN) – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Fisheries scientists are mobilizing a team to collect tissue samples from an unusual spate of dead ice seals washing up along the northwestern coast of Alaska, the agency said Wednesday.
At least 60 dead seals have been reported in the last 30 days, with the most occurring this past Monday when a hunter in the Norton Sound community of Kotlik counted 18 seal carcasses along 11 miles of shore just north of the village. Bearded, ringed, spotted and ribbon seals are Alaska species of seals collectively termed ice seals because of their dependence on sea ice for feeding, resting and breeding.
This same hunter also reported dozens of dead ice seals along the shores of nearby Stuart Island. A biologist with the National Park Service reported six dead seals between Kotzebue Airport and Sadie Creek, as well as accounts from the public of up to 30 dead seals between Kivalina and Point Hope, all communities that range from northwestern to the northernmost communities of Alaska along the Bering and Chukchi seas.
The carcasses of eight young bearded seals were also found May 10 near Gambell on St. Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea, according to the NOAA.
“We are working with our Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Partners to document (photograph) and conduct necropsies on as many of these animals as possible,” NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle said.
Speegle described hair loss on some of the dead seals but noted that scientists will not be certain until further examination of fresh animals if that is due to decomposition or abnormal molting as seen in another unusual mortality event involving both seals and walruses in the same area of Alaska between 2011 and 2016.
Ice seals are an essential resource for Alaska Native communities who are allowed to subsistence hunt the various species members. Seals are a source of food and their skins are used for clothing, boats and crafts in coastal communities. Speegle said the NOAA is working to respond to concerns from the Bering Sea Elders Group, Kawerak Inc., Association of Village Council Presidents, and individual hunters and fishermen in the affected areas.
There has also been a spike in gray whale deaths along the Pacific Coast, including Alaska over the past month. NOAA Fisheries has officially declared that die-off an “unusual mortality event” triggering additional resources toward an investigation into the causes.