Wintering Areas and Habitat Use of Ringed Seals in Kotzebue Sound, Alaska: A Community-Based Study
Information on seasonal movements, habitat use and dive behavior are very limited for ringed seals in Alaska , despite their importance for subsistence, as the major prey for polar bears, and as a species likely to be greatly impacted by climate warming. Satellite tagging conducted by this project is beginning to provide this information and will serve as a baseline for evaluating future environmental change. This project involves Tribal members in planning and conducting research activities, and will serve as an example for how this can be done in other areas.
In the past, many marine mammal research projects in Alaska have been conducted with little or no involvement of local Tribal members in planning, field work or interpretation of results. This project, like it’s predecessor “Community-based tagging of bearded seals”, is ground-breaking because Tribal members are responsible for developing capture techniques, tagging and sampling seals. Two Tribal participants are included as Co-Investigators under the scientific permit to conduct this work. This project is one of the few times in Alaska that Tribal members have been trained and authorized as Co-investigators under a marine mammal research permit.
This project addresses concerns of coastal Alaskan subsistence hunters and scientists relative to ringed seals, which have been the subject of limited directed research. There is no management program for ringed seals (or other ice seals), which are important subsistence resources. There is a critical need to further marine mammal research in Alaska with Tribal involvement and to develop management strategies for ice seals where none currently exist.
- Build Tribal capacity for a proactive role in planning and conducting research on a marine mammal species of Tribal importance, further demonstrating the value of Tribal participation and traditional knowledge in accomplishing these goals. Contribute to building the foundation for management of marine mammals, including ringed seals, in northwest Alaska. Educate Tribal members through their direct participation in wildlife research projects.
- Refine methods for catching adult ringed seals in open water through a collaborative program involving Kotzebue-area Tribal members/hunters and biologists. Hunters will be responsible for methods development.
- Satellite tag 20 adult ringed seals in Kotzebue Sound over a 2-yr period, 2007 and 2008, with catching and tagging done primarily by Tribal members.
- Analyze seasonal movements, diving behavior, and habitat use of ringed seals tagged in Kotzebue Sound ; interpret relative to possible impacts of climate change on ringed seals, and; provide results to polar bear biologists.
- Share the results of this study with local hunters, residents, and other interested parties through the Kotzebue IRA website, regular distribution of maps by e-mail, presentations at meetings and conferences, and a Community Report newsletter.
- Summer 2007: Plan logistics, order tags
- October 2007: Field work to tag ringed seals in Kotzebue Sound
- October 2007-May 2008: Download and process location data from tagged seals, distribute maps and make maps and project information available on project web site
- Winter 2007/2008: Present study results to Ice Seal Committee, Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, Eskimo Walrus Commission, and Alaska Marine Science Symposium
- Summer 2008: Preliminary analysis of data to guide the next field season
- Spring/Summer 2008: Plan logistics, order tags
- October 2008: Field work to tag ringed seals in Kotzebue Sound
- October 2008-May 2009: Download and process location data from tagged seals, distribute maps and make maps and project information available on project web site
- Winter 2008/2009: Present study results to Ice Seal Committee, Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, Eskimo Walrus Commission, and Alaska Marine Science Symposium
- Summer 2009: Analysis of location and dive data
- September-October 2009: Complete analysis of location and dive data
- November 2009: Share results with local residents through Community Report
- December 2009: Present study results at Biennial Conference on Biology of Marine Mammals
- December 2009: Submit Final report to FWS
Tribal members are involved in all stages of the study, including tagging and biological sampling. Tribal members have, as part of the bearded seal tagging study and the 2006 pilot ringed seal tagging project, received training in the handling, measuring, sampling and tagging of seals. Two Tribal participant “taggers” have been designated as Co-Investigators under the marine mammal research permit under which this project will operate, and will be authorized to tag and sample seals. Additional Tribal members will participate in, learn about and be trained in catching, tagging and sampling seals.
Before this project, research methods did not exist for capturing ringed seals on open water in fall. The only time this had been done was by the Tribal Grants project to capture bearded seals and during a pilot ringed seal project in 2006. The tagging teams catch ringed seals in October immediately before (and during) freeze-up. The project uses local logistics provided by hunters, and hunters catch and tag the seals. Biologist Kathy Frost participates for part of the time to assist with tagging and collecting biological samples such as blood, and to train Tribal members in these techniques. Specially designed “seal nets” measuring 12 ft x 100 ft, 12 ft x 50 ft, or 12 ft x 250 ft, constructed of 12-in stretch mesh, are used for seal capture. When caught, seals are removed from nets and taken to shore for processing. During handling, seals are weighed using a bipod made by John and Pearl Goodwin. They are then measured and tagged in the hind flippers with individually numbered tags. In conjunction with flipper tagging, a small (0.5 cm diameter) skin punch is taken from each flipper for use in genetics studies. Two test tubes of blood are collected from the extradural intervertebral vein (on top of the back bone near the hips).
The original proposal was to instrument at least 20 adult ringed seals over a 2-yr period with SPLASH tags manufactured by Wildlife Computers, Inc. These tags are glued to the hair on the back of the seal behind the neck using quick-setting epoxy. The tags provide information about location and diving behavior through the fall and winter. They fall off when the seals molt the following spring. In addition, we proposed to attach location-only SPOT tags to the hind flipper of six seals using a post through the skin between the toe bones of the hind flipper . The tag was slipped into the holes and a screw attached to secure it in place. The SPOT tags only transmit when the seals haul out since the hind flippers remain underwater when the seal surfaces for air. Because the SPOT tags do not fall off during the annual molt, they can provide information on longer term movements, site fidelity and stock questions as well as information about hauling out behavior during the molt.
The area of investigation is in northwest Alaska , specifically northern Kotzebue Sound . The field camp is located at Sisualik Spit about 10 miles north of Kotzebue.