The North Slope Borough today issued the following statement on the mysterious outbreak that has killed dozens of seals along the North Slope.
Alaska Dispatch reports that the borough Department of Wildlife Management has never documented a similar outbreak in the region.
From the North Slope Borough:
Diseased Seals Found Along Arctic Coast
North Slope Borough wildlife biologists have confirmed about 100 cases of ringed seals beached by an unidentified illness. Almost half of the sickened seals have died. Federal agencies are working to identify the cause of the outbreak.
Diseased seals began hauling out along the North Slope in late July. Symptoms included patchy hair loss, lesions primarily on the hind flippers, and skin irritation around the nose and eyes. Biologists with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management (NSB-DWM) were unable to immediately determine the cause, though they suspected a virus.
They conducted coastal surveys throughout August and September and shipped samples out for analysis. Preliminary results are inconclusive but investigations are ongoing.
Residents in Point Lay and Wainwright also reported sickened seals during this time. The outbreak appeared to peak in mid-August, and sightings have declined since then. As of September 30, borough biologists have responded to 107 strandings. Ninety-nine ringed seals exhibited symptoms of the outbreak and at least 46 have died.
Coastal village residents have reported an additional 146 seals hauled out, many of which are likely diseased. Several dead walruses at Point Lay have been examined and also had similar skin lesions. Skin lesions were also reported by hunters on two bearded seals.
NSB-DWM has been communicating with subsistence hunters regarding the sickened marine mammals.
This is not a time of year when seals are generally hunted, but the department has advised hunters to refrain from consumption of any animal that does not look healthy, which is the traditional subsistence practice. Agencies cooperating in the investigation include the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Alaska Department of Fish & Game, Alaska Veterinary Pathology Services and a national network of experts called the Marine Mammals Stranding Network.