NSF-funded researchers track Alaska seal migration for the first time

Using a remarkable combination of time-tested hunting knowledge, the application of common-sense ingenuity and high-tech satellite tracking, researchers supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), working with Alaska Native hunters, have captured, electronically tagged, and tracked a ringed seal in its spring migration as it moved northward with the ice of the Chukchi Sea.

This is the first time anyone has tracked a ringed seal in open sea ice, and its success has not only increased knowledge about the seal's movements, but also enhanced trust and mutual respect between scientists and custodians of traditional ecological knowledge, according to Gay Sheffield of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG).

"Seal tracking is an important and somewhat unexpected offshoot of a larger NSF project to establish an onshore environmental observatory on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait and to encourage the participation of Alaska natives in the research effort," according to Sheffield, who oversees marine mammal sampling and data gathering for the observatory.

Ringed seals are one of the four "ice-associated" species of seals in those waters. The others are bearded, ribbon, and spotted seals.

"In Alaska, the large scale movements of ringed, bearded, and ribbon seals are unknown except in a general sense," said Sheffield. "At this point, the only northern seals in Alaska for which we have had even an inkling of their movements are spotted seals."

The recently tagged seal was captured initially by island residents using what Sheffield described as a "clever and effective" method in which a homemade plywood slide was deployed from a blind to block the animal's escape down its breathing hole in the ice. Scientists then approached the seal on the ice and temporarily glued a tracking device to its fur.

Once released, the animal traveled more than 700 kilometers (400 miles) north during the period it was tracke

Contact: Peter West
National Science Foundation

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