Ice Seal Movement, Habitat Use, and Foraging Behavior Study – North Slope, Alaska

Principal Investigators Andrew Von Duyke
Collaborators ADF&G, Dave Douglas (USGS), Rowena Gryba (MARES Program)
Funding NSB Shell Baseline Studies Program, Office of Naval Research, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)

Project Summary:

The ringed seal (Pusa hispida), spotted seal (Phoca largha) and bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) are important species in the Arctic both ecologically and as subsistence resources. Understanding the migration patterns, habitat use areas, and foraging and diving behavior are important to the development of robust monitoring and management strategies. The need to collect this information is becoming more pressing as changes in the arctic environment increase. Ringed seals are facing predicted declines in their sea ice habitat due to climate change and possible threats from industrial development, such as increased shipping and oil and gas exploration. What effects these changes in their environment might have on ringed seals can only be addressed appropriately when we understand the basic biology of the species. This study focuses on gathering seal movement and dive profiles by attaching satellite-linked dive recorders (SDRs) and telemetry units to individual animals to record these variables over the course of several years. We are also collecting tissue samples and measurement for animal health assessment.

Goals and Objectives:

Our overall goal is to determine the seasonal movement and foraging behaviors of ice seals in waters adjacent to the North Slope of Alaska. The 3 main objectives of the study are:

  1. Determine seasonal and yearly movement patterns of adult and juvenile ice seals with a focus on the open water season. Movement during the open water season will be a primary focus because until recently tag technology and previous capture methods have limited the collection of these data for ice seals. During this study we will attempt to tag adult and juvenile seals in order to determine if different age classes are utilizing different habitat types. Recent data collected in the Kotzebue, AK, region suggest that adult and juvenile animals may have different movement patterns.
  2. Document site fidelity and migration routes of ice seals. Recent unpublished work conducted by the Kotzebue IRA in conjunction with the ADF&G show juvenile ringed seals in the Kotzebue region make large migrational movements during the fall following the advance of the ice edge. During this same time period, adult ringed seals do not appear to be making these same movements.
  3. Document habitat use areas and foraging behavior, such as foraging location within the water column during specific times of year. Dive data will provide an indication of when animals are foraging, what portion of the water column animals are foraging in, and indicate when animals are traveling providing information on specific foraging areas. Juvenile ringed seals are commonly seen in near shore areas during the open water season and a number of juvenile seals are caught in subsistence fishing nets each year. Adult ringed seals are seen much less frequently near shore and as such may be spending more time in open water areas.

Project Schedule:

This study began in July 2011, initally focusing on ringed seals, and will continue for an as of yet undetermined number of years. Continuation of the project will be subject to funding and community input. This project is being conducted by the NSB Department of Wildlife Management in conjunction with the ADF&G. Ice seals were being captured under ADF&G’s marine mammal permit #358-1787-03 for the years of 2011 and 2012. The tagging for 2013 and beyond occurred under the NMFS Permit #15324.

Animations of Seal Movements (ADFG) – This link will bring you to animations of ice seals tagged in 2014, 2015 and 2016 in tagging project locations in Kotzebue, Koyuk, Hooper Bay, St. Michael, Scammon Bay, Nome and Barrow. You can also find archived tagging maps from these years and 2012.



Journal Articles:

Previous work:

Banner photo credit: Aaron Morris

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