Ice Seal Research
Movements and Habitat Use Studies

Most Recent Update

Most Recent Tracking Map
We are pleased to announce that we tagged three young bearded seals on the Koyuk River, near Koyuk, AK, from 20 to 22 September. The bearded seals were captured, tagged, and released by Merlin Henry, a trained hunter-tagger from Koyuk, Merlin's grandson Jeremiah Henry, Ryan Adam (ADF&G), and myself (ADF&G). We deployed a CTD and flipper (SPOT) tag on all three seals. Merlin has helped capture, tag, and release twelve bearded seals during the past four years.

During the last 10 days we have received locations for 5 bearded, 2 ringed, and 7 spotted seals. Two of the three bearded seals tagged last week near Koyuk have left the Koyuk River and entered Norton Sound. The third bearded seal has moved up the Koyuk River. The two ringed seals have moved north of the 200 meter isopleth in the northern Chukchi Sea; of particular note, RS17-01-M (red triangle), has moved 330 miles north of this isopleth. The bearded seal tagged near Koyuk in September of 2016 (BS16-07-F, yellow square) is still located on the Serpentine River, east of Shishmaref. The three spotted seals tagged near Scammon Bay in July are still in the eastern Bering Sea. Sea ice data are courtesy of the U.S. National Ice Center, dated 25 September (https://earthdata.nasa.gov/earth-observation-data/near-real-time/rapid-response/modis-subsets).

Animation of Seal Locations and Sea Ice in 2016

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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 some 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. Ice seals are found in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas but little is known about the timing and magnitude of their movements by species and even less is known about movements by sex and age classes and whether individuals return to the same places seasonally and what important habitats are. Reductions in sea ice have increased interest in shipping and oil and gas activities, which increases the need to understand ice seal movements and habitat use in order to plan shipping lanes, oil and gas lease sales, and to develop effective mitigation measures for their protection. A combination of satellite tag technology and the skills of Native subsistence seal hunters to capture seals and deploy transmitters will greatly increase our knowledge of seal movements and behavior in a relatively short period of time. The focus of this study is to work with interested seal hunters at different villages along the west and north coasts of Alaska to capture and deploy satellite transmitters on ringed, bearded, spotted, and possibly ribbon seals. 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.

Tagging activities in 2016

June 2016: We tagged 1 young male ringed seal with a flipper-mounted SPOT tag near the community of St. Michael on 10 June. This seal was tagged by a local crew of seal hunters, Alexander Niksik and Palsson Fitka.

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Alexander Niksik holding the flippers of a young male ringed seal that was tagged near St. Michael, 10 June 2016. The satellite transmitter (SPOT tag) is attached to the seal's left flipper and a uniquely numbered ID tag is attached to the right flipper.

July 2016: We tagged 4 young bearded seals near the community of St. Michael. All four received a flipper-mounted SPOT tag, one also received a glue-on SPLASH tag, and one received a glue-on CTD tag. These seals were tagged by a local crew of seal hunters, Alexander Niksik and Palsson Fitka.

Also in July we tagged 2 ringed seals with CTD tags near Utqiaġvik (Barrow) during a cooperative tagging event with the North Slope Borough, Department of Wildlife Management (NSB).

August 2016: In cooperation with the NSB we tagged 7 spotted seals with CTD tags near Utqiaġvik. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Marine Mammal Laboratory provided three flipper-mounted SPOT tags that were also deployed on spotted seals. During the spotted seal captures we also captured and tagged a bearded seal with a flipper-mounted SPOT tag.

September 2016: We tagged 2 young bearded seals near the community of Koyuk. Both bearded seals received flipper-mounted SPOT tags and one received a SPLASH while the other received a CTD tag. These bearded seals were tagged by a local seal hunter and reindeer herder Merlin Henry and assisted by Mark Nelson (ADF&G) and Justin Crawford (ADF&G).

October 2016: We tagged 2 spotted seals with CTD tags near the community of Scammon Bay on 18 October. These seals were tagged by a local seal hunter Morgan Simon and assisted by Mark Nelson (ADF&G).

November 2016: We tagged 1 young bearded seal with a CTD and flipper-mounted SPOT tag near Nome. This bearded seal was tagged by a local seal and beluga whale hunter Tom Gray and assisted by Mark Nelson (ADF&G). Tom uses nets to capture beluga whales and seals for subsistence and has previously worked with us to deploy tags on beluga whales.

Tagging activities in 2015

May 2015: We tagged 1 young male ringed seal on 14 May. This seal was tagged near the community of Hooper Bay by Albert Simon 2nd. Albert 2nd was assisted by Mark Nelson (ADF&G).

August 2015: During August we tagged 8 bearded and 1 ringed seal in the Norton Sound region. We tagged 4 young bearded seals (2 male and 2 female) on 18–20 August about 15 miles up the Koyuk River from the community of Koyuk. These seals were tagged by a local seal hunter and reindeer herder Merlin Henry. We also tagged 4 young bearded seals (2 male and 2 female) and 1 young female ringed seal on 22 and 23 August in St. Michael Canal and Little St. Michael Canal, near the community of St. Michael. These seals were tagged by a local crew of seal hunters Alexander Niksik and Palsson Fitka. The hunter-taggers in both locations were assisted by Mark Nelson (ADF&G).

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Albert Simon 2nd preparing to tag a young ringed seal near Hooper Bay, 14 May 2015.
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Alexander Niksik tagging a young bearded seal captured in St. Michael Canal, 22 August 2015.

Tagging activities in 2014

June 2014: We tagged 4 adult ringed seals (2 male and 2 female) and 1 young male bearded seal on 18 and 19 June. The seals were tagged south of Kotzebue by the local crew consisting of John Goodwin, Pearl Goodwin, Boyuk Goodwin, Frank Garfield, Edward Ahyakak, and Denali Whiting with logistics assistance by Alex Whiting. The non-local crew included Kathy Frost and Mark Nelson.

September 2014: We tagged 3 young male bearded seals between 26 and 30 September about 15 miles up the Koyuk River from the community of Koyuk. The seals were tagged by a local seal hunter and reindeer herder Merlin Henry and Mark Nelson.

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John and Pearl Goodwin searching for seals to tag in Kotzebue Sound.
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A net was used to capture ringed and bearded seals near Kotzebue. Photo by Denali Whiting, 19 June 2014.
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A net was used to capture this ringed seal near Kotzebue. Left to right: Frank Garfield, Boyuk Goodwin, Edward Ahyakak, and Kathy Frost. Photo by Denali Whiting, 19 June 2014.
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Ringed seal tagged near Hooper Bay. Left to right: Mark Nelson and Florence (Nukusuk) Kargi. Photo by Albert Simon.
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Merlin Henry with a young bearded seal tagged in the Koyuk River, 30 September 2014.

Previous Ice Seal Movement and Habitat Use Studies

We have worked with seal hunters from the Native Village of Kotzebue to capture and tag ringed seals to learn more about movements and habitat use. We are expanding this project to other villages.