On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an Unusual Mortality Event for several species of ice seals in Arctic waters. Since June 2018, NOAA has documented 282 dead seals in the Bering and Chukchi Seas.
“For the past two years, the number of stranded ring, bearded and spotted seals is about five times more than is usual,” said NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle.
The three seals covered by the Unusual Mortality Event, or UME, are bearded, ringed and spotted seals. Speegle says the Shishmaref and Kotzebue areas have reported the highest number of dead seals.
As NOAA continues to investigate what’s behind the rise in Arctic ice seal deaths, Speegle says the UME declaration frees up funds and focuses research to investigate the die-offs.
“A working group on unusual mortality events will be looking at the data that is collected,” Speegle said. “And there will be a team set up to investigate this. So declaring an unusual mortality event definitely brings more focus and resources to the investigation.”
Speegle says scientists haven’t yet identified a cause for the rise in seal deaths. But researchers and local residents have observed several changes to the seals and their habitat, such as lack of sea ice and an increase in illnesses.
“We have made some observations that the past couple years have been warmer than usual. So that’s one of many factors we’re looking into,” Speegle said. “We are also looking into the possibility that these animals may have been affected by harmful algal blooms, which also occur when the sea temperatures are warmer than usual.”
Speegle says the die-offs can give researchers clues as to the status of Arctic marine ecosystems.
“They sort of give us an idea of what is going on in the ecosystem,” Speegle said. “So when marine mammals start dying off in unusual numbers, then that indicates that something is awry.”
And Speegle says that the unusual die-offs are particularly alarming for Native communities in the area because the seals are a high source of protein for subsistence hunters.
“Certainly these animals are important for food security for people that live in the coastal communities and in Western Alaska, as they hunt these seals to put food on the table for their families.”
Both the ringed and bearded ice seals are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Speegle says people who happen upon dead Arctic seals should contact NOAA’s Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network at (877) 925-7773.