Ice Seal Research
Movements and Habitat Use Studies

Project Overview

There are four species of seals in Alaska that are referred to as "ice associated seals" or "ice seals" because they use sea ice for important life history events such as pupping, nursing, molting, and resting. Ringed (Pusa hispida), bearded (Erignathus barbatus), spotted (Phoca largha), and ribbon (Histriophoca fasciata) seals are all used for subsistence by coastal Alaska Natives for food, oil, materials, clothing, and handicrafts. These ice seals live in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas but little is known about the timing of each species' movements and even less is known about how these movements may differ by sex and age classes, whether individuals return to the same places seasonally, and the location and characteristics of important habitats they use. Reductions in sea ice have intensified interest in shipping and oil and gas activities, which amplifies the need to understand ice seal movements and habitat use to plan shipping lanes, oil and gas lease sales, and to develop effective mitigation measures for their protection. A combination of satellite transmitter technology and the skills of Native subsistence seal hunters to capture seals and instrument them with transmitters will greatly improve our knowledge of seal movements and behavior. The focus of this study is to work with interested seal hunters in multiple villages along the west and north coasts of Alaska to capture and instrument (tag) ringed, bearded, spotted, and possibly ribbon seals with satellite transmitters. Tracking seals tagged at multiple locations, potentially as far south as Bristol Bay and as far north as Kaktovik, will allow us to better understand the range and timing of movements, use of sea ice including haulout behavior, important habitats, degree of seasonal site fidelity, and behavior near ships, including seismic and other petroleum related activities. Funding for seal tagging has been provided by BOEM (SPLASH and SPOT tags, Wildlife Computers, Redmond, WA) and the Office of Naval Research (CTD tags, Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of St. Andrews, UK). Seal research is conducted under a NMFS Permit issued to ADF&G and an ADF&G Animal Care and Use Permit.