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Polar Ecosystems Program

Polar Ecosystems Program Prepares for Ice Seal Research Cruises

Bearded, spotted, ringed, and ribbon seals, often referred to collectively as “ice seals,” are seasonally ice-associated species that are vulnerable to climate warming through loss of sea ice. The ice seals found in the Bering Sea during spring have rarely been studied, and there are no current estimates of abundance or comprehensive descriptions of their distribution and habitat use. Further, they are critical to the nutritional and cultural sustainability of Alaska Native communities along the Bering Sea coast.

Local concentrations of these animals on the ice are some of the most conspicuous indicators of prey concentrations and associated biological and physical processes in the underlying water and benthos. A fundamental understanding of these seals’ abundance, distribution, and foraging ecology is, therefore, essential for an understanding of the mechanistic links between lower-trophic and human components of the Bering ecosystem.

From April to June 2007, the Polar Ecosystems Program (PEP) will conduct research on seals in the sea ice of the Bering Sea during two multi-disciplinary cruises aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy and one dedicated cruise on the NOAA Fisheries research vessel Oscar Dyson.

Our teams’ main objectives will be to capture ice seals (most likely ribbon seals and spotted seals) and instrument them with satellite-linked data recorders (SDRs). The SDRs are used to provide information on an animal’s diving behavior and movements. In addition, we will conduct visual surveys of marine mammals from each vessel and aerial surveys from the helicopter that will be available on the Healy. In all, 15 people will participate on the PEP research teams. Four Alaska Natives with extensive local and traditional knowledge of seals and sea ice will be part of the teams, to further the goals of a comanagement agreement between NMFS and the Alaska Native Ice Seal Committee. Preparation for these cruises was a primary focus of the PEP during January-March 2007.

By Peter Boveng

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