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

October 29, 2001

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 tracked -- roughly seven weeks last summer -- diving to depths of more than 50 meters (164 feet).

"The great thing is that you have people sharing information and learning together," said Sheffield. "I was working with men who work with and observe these animals on a daily basis. They are the experts on the animal's local behavior and movements. It was a privilege to be able to unite scientific and traditional knowledge to gain a better understanding of ringed seal life history."

The strategic location of the observatory on Little Diomede is expected to permit rapid, flexible collection of chemical, biological and physical data on the transport of nutrient- and organic-rich waters of north Pacific origin into the Arctic Ocean through the narrow Bering Strait.

Researchers at the University of Alaska, the University of Maryland and the University of Tennessee are the principal investigators for the observatory.

"Little Diomede Island is a challenging, but rewarding place to work," said Lee Cooper of the University of Tennessee, the project lead scientist. "I can't think of any community in the United States more remote and isolated, but the support of the local community has eased a lot of our research difficulties. We couldn't have made any significant progress up there without the community's help."
Note to reporters and editors - For an image of a ringed seal at 300 dpi, please contact the media officer named at the top of this release.

For more information about the observatory on Little Diomede, see: http://arctic.bio.utk.edu/AEO/index.html

From more information about ringed seals from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game see: http://www.state.ak.us/adfg/notebook/marine/rin-seal.htm

National Science Foundation

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