Bearded Seal Movement, Habitat Use, and Foraging Behavior Study

Principal Investigators Jason Herreman (2010, 2012)
Collaborators Peter Boveng (NOAA), Native Village of Kotzebue
Funding NOAA, NSB

Project Objective:

This study is a joint project between the North Slope Borough (NSB) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The objective is to document seasonal movements, foraging behavior, and important habitat use areas for bearded seals. We will be capturing animals in Wainwright and Barrow, working with hunters to avoid interfering with the hunt. A field camp may also be established in Peard Bay or other locations between Barrow and Wainwright depending upon ice conditions. Work will begin at spring breakup when boat access is available from these communities. We will be working with local hunters to accomplish this work and plan to hire 2-3 boats and 3-6 people each capture season. A second capture phase of this project is planned each year to begin after fall whaling is complete. All capture work will be contingent upon weather, ice conditions, and access to seals.

Seals will be captured using multi- and monofilament tangle nets. Animals will be tagged with satellite-linked dive recorders (SDR’s). Two different types of SDR’s will be used. One SDR attaches to the seal’s head and transmits data whenever the seal surfaces. The second SDR attaches to the seal’s flipper and transmits only when the seal is hauled out. The head mounted tag will be shed during the next seasons’ molt and only provides data for approximately 9 months. The flipper tag will provide long term data for approximately 5 years if the tag remains on the animal and is operational. We will also be collecting samples for genetics and health assessment. There will be a $100 gas certificate reward for any tagged animal shot incidentally during hunting activities. To receive the reward, the hunter must return the tags and allow the opportunity for sample collection. Ringed seals caught incidentally during this work will also be tagged.

Barrow hunters Joe Skin and Tim Aiken. Photo: Jason Herreman Barrow hunter James Aiken. Photo: Jason Herreman
Dr. James Bailey, NOAA collaborating scientist. Photo: Jason Herreman Barrow hunter, Howard Kittick, and NOAA scientists, Sean Dahl and James Bailey looking for bearded seals in Peard Bay. Photo: Mike Cameron

Results from summer of 2010

The 2010 season was a rocky start for our bearded seal tagging study. Ice left Wainwright early this year and did not return. As such, capture efforts were not attempted in Wainwright but started in Peard Bay. One hunter from the Barrow area joined NSB-DWM and NOAA biologists to establish a field camp and prepare for capture efforts. A camp was established at the Patkotak cabin and arrangements were made for hunters from Wainwright to join the operation when ice and weather conditions were favorable. Unfortunately, weather conditions were never such that the hunters from Wainwright could make it to the camp. Biologists and one hunter from Barrow spent several weeks in Peard Bay. During this time the team managed to attempt seal captures for only three of the days. Eventually the decision was made to pull camp and move operations to Barrow. Three more days of effort were attempted from Barrow, with the help of four Barrow hunters. Unfortunately, by this time the majority of ugruks were no longer hauling out on the ice and were moving off to their open water foraging areas.

Fall capture work in Barrow never really got underway this year as whaling continued into the shore fast ice period. Personnel were in place and scouting forays were made from snow machine along the shore and off of Plover Point into the open water area of Elson Lagoon. Hopefully, the 2011 season will bring more favorable ice and weather conditions and better luck to our team.

Joe Skin and Sean Dahl heading off to look for bearded seals near Barrow in an inflatable boat. Photo: Jason Herreman

Results from summer of 2011 (from Peter Boveng)

Two teams of hunters, other local experts, scientists, and veterinarians spent about 12 days during late June and early July in efforts to tag bearded seals for studies of movements and habitat use. One team worked from Kotzebue and the other from Wainwright. One ugruk, a female approximately 3-5 years old (470 lbs or 213 kg) was caught, tagged, and released in Kotzebue Sound on July 3rd. She was the 7th individual tagged since the project began in 2009. Her track is shown on the figure below, along with the July 6th location of a male, tagged in 2011, on his way north after spending the winter in the Bering Sea.

As in previous years, the task of catching ugruks for tagging was found to be extremely challenging. For both teams, the numbers of seals temporarily entangled but lost (approximately 8 in Kotzebue and 3 in Wainwright) were higher than in any previous effort, a sign that we have continued to improve in our understanding of the species’ behavior, but very frustrating, nonetheless. We have a lot of stories about ‘the one that got away’! I can say from first-hand experience that the team members were extremely willing and hard-working, and I thank them all for their efforts and the information that was shared.

Update as of 8/13/2012:

We have continued to receive many locations from the female bearded seal tagged in Kotzebue during early July (see map below). From the Pt. Lay area in mid-July, she moved steadily NE along the Chukchi Sea coast and then continued E along the Beaufort coast to the vicinity of Flaxman Island, as of last week. As shown on the map, we also received a location from one of the three bearded seals tagged last year in Kotzebue. That individual was in the sea ice of the north-central Chukchi sea, not far from where she spent much of the summer of 2011.

The web site for the Native Village of Kotzebue has additional information about the project and some of the previous results.

Results from summer of 2012

Our local boats and crew consisted of: Enoch Oktollik, Shawn Oktollik, Fred Rexford, Bob Shears, and Stacey Osborn. The crew that worked on the project was very enthusiastic and fun to work with. Mary Ellan Ahmaogak also joined us on the water for the last few days of field work. Thanks to the people of Wainwright for their assistance in this effort!

Wainwright Bearded Seal Tagging Crew: (L to R) Enoch Oktollik, Stacey Osborne, Heather Ziehl (NMFS-NMML), Josh London (NMFS-NMML), Mary Ellen Ahmaogak, Bob Shears, Shawn Oktollik, Fred Rexford, and Sarah Coburn (NSB Veterinarian). Photo: Jason Herreman

Future of the project:

The NSB-DWM was not involved with bearded seal tagging in 2013. Stay tuned for future updates!

Banner photo credit: Craig George

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