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Thursday, October 13, 2011

In Alaska's Arctic, mysterious outbreak kills dozens of ringed seals - 12th Oct 2011

A mysterious and potentially widespread disease is thought to have contributed to the deaths of dozens of ringed seals along Alaska's Arctic coast. Scores more are sickened, some so ill that skin lesions bleed when touched.

The animals are an important subsistence food, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has proposed listing them as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

In July, biologists with the North Slope Borough's Department of Wildlife Management began receiving reports of ringed seals hauled out on beaches, an unusual behavior since the animals usually prefer the water or ice. Since then, they've found at least 100 seals with telltale mangy hair and skin lesions, mostly while traveling by four-wheeler along 30 miles of Beaufort and Chukchi sea coastline outside Barrow.

At least 46 of those seals have been found dead, and experts aren't sure if the disease is killing them or if other infections and polar bears are proving fatal once the seals become feeble.

"Right now we're leaning toward it being a virus, and that could weaken their immune system," said Jason Herreman, a borough wildlife biologist studying seals and polar bears.

The Department of Wildlife Management has never documented a similar outbreak in the North Slope region, Herreman said. Scientists don't know the scope of the problem because since ringed seals are difficult to track and haven't been counted for decades. Hundreds of thousands are thought to live in the region.

Reports of nearly 150 other seals with the illness have come in from villages outside Barrow, population 4,200, as well as from Chukotka, Russia, and Tuktoyuktak, a village on the northwestern corner of Canada, Herreman said. North Slope biologists are trying to determine the magnitude of the problem in the other countries, he said. Borough biologists have sent numerous tissue samples, from dead seals and others still alive, to laboratories around the country. Still, they have no answer. Read More