NOAA declares Unusual Mortality Event for Arctic ice seals

 A Sead spotted seal stranded near Kotlik, AK. (NOAA)
A Sead spotted seal stranded near Kotlik, AK. (NOAA) (KTUU)
Published: Oct. 29, 2019 at 5:52 PM AKDT
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Bearded, ringed, and spotted seals are dying at unprecedented rates in the Bering and Chukchi seas, leading the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration to declare an Unusual Mortality Event for the animals.

Subsistence hunters, community observers, and scientists reported 285 total strandings between June 1, 2018 and Sept. 30, 2019. This is five times the average annual stranding rate for ice seals in northern Alaskan seas, according to NOAA.

Communities from Kotlik to Utqiagvik say the seals are exhibiting symptoms they haven’t encountered before: emaciation, odd bumps all over their bodies, hair loss ... and their blubber smells putrid.

“Nobody knows what’s going on with these animals,” Brandon Ahmasuk, a subsistence hunter in Nome, told Channel 2.

Ahmasuk is a member of the Ice Seal Committee, which works in part to preserve subsistence uses of ice seals. He says he’s personally seen animals stranded and dead along the shores near his home. His community is alarmed.

“People are scared of the die-off,” Ahmasuk said. “They don’t know whether it’s disease-related; they wonder ‘is it going to impact me or my family if I harvest one?’”

NOAA scientists have taken tissue samples from the affected animals, but say they need to analyze more seal carcasses to identify exactly how they are dying.

Biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service Barbara Mahoney says they are coordinating a research plan with Alaska State epidemiologists, hunting organizations, and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to gather more data in 2020.

Mahoney says there’s a rush to figure out what is happening to these animals, which are a vital subsistence resource for coastal communities.

“We’ve heard from hunting communities that this ice seal UME (Unusual Mortality Event) is of concern,” Mahoney said. “They rely very much on ice seals for their nutritional, traditional, and cultural resources.”

Ice seals join gray whales, multiple species of sea birds, and chum salmon on the list of animals experiencing mass die-offs in a record warm 2018-2019 season for Alaska.

“This is just another piece of the puzzle,” Mahoney said.

NOAA urges people to report dead, injured, or sick marine mammals by calling the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network at (877) 925-7773, or contact local wildlife authorities.

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