One of the seals found dead on May 7, 2019.
Photo: Harold Okitkun (NOAA)

Seals are dying in Alaska, and no one knows why.

At least 60 seals—including bearded, ringed, and spotted seals—have recently washed up dead along Alaska’s Bering and Chukchi sea coastlines, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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Carcasses of the seals, all protected under the Endangered Species Act, first began appearing in the waters in May, but dozens of new reports came in Monday from locals who saw the dead animals in southwest Norton Sound on the western shores of the state. They’ve been found hairless in some instances, but scientists aren’t sure if that’s due to their bodies decomposing or molting, where animals shed feathers or hair to make room for new ones.

This is bad news for the varying species (obviously), but it’s also concerning for the Alaska Native people who depend on marine animals as a key source of food. Subsistence hunters are, after all, the ones out on the waters who often witness these sad scenarios firsthand. NOAA is communicating with various local groups to figure out how to remediate the ongoing issue. As it wrote in a release:

As ice seals are an essential resource for Alaska Native communities, food safety is a major concern. Some people have expressed concerns about contamination. Others have reported the seals are unusually thin this year and are worried about prey availability.

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The agency is also working with the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Partners to take photographs of the dead animals and conduct proper necropsies to figure out what’s killing them. These types of investigations, however, don’t always offer a clear answer.

Another one. :(
Photo: Raime Fronstin/National Park Service (NOAA)

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A similar mortality event—where the same seal species were found dead with patches of lost hair—unfolded between 2011 and 2016, and scientists still don’t know exactly why. That event was believed to be the result of some type of disease, but tissue samples never pointed to any virus or pollutant to blame. At least 233 seals died during that event. Hopefully, NOAA figures out what’s killing the seals to prevent such a high death toll this time.

“We are mobilizing to get our marine mammal experts and our partners there to get some samples,” said Julie Speegle, a spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries, to Reuters. “It could be a harmful algal bloom. It could be a number of things.”

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Climate change probably doesn’t help. Winters have been abnormally warm, and this already appears to be contributing to the death of other animals like puffins. Record warmth in recent years disrupting life as we know it in the coastal Arctic.

Seals depend on ice to rest and hunt. However, Arctic sea ice just hit a record low for this time of the month, reports Mongabay. That may be playing a role, especially if seals aren’t finding enough ice, but researchers will have to take a closer look to be sure.

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