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With 50+ Ringed Seal Sightings, Unalaskans Start Tracking The Unexpected Species

May 3, 2018

The first ringed seal was spotted last February near Kloosterboer at the Port of Dutch Harbor.
Credit Melissa Good / Alaska Sea Grant

Unalaskans are used to spotting marine mammals around the island.

But lately, they're not just seeing whales or otters. They're seeing ringed seals — an Arctic species that typically lives far north of the ice-free Aleutian Islands.

Now, scientists are monitoring the unusual visitors to find out why they're here.  

When the first ringed seal popped up last winter, it seemed like a fluke. But another appeared early this spring. And then, the number skyrocketed.

"Since we started tracking them in March, we have more than 50 reports," said Melissa Good, Unalaska's Sea Grant agent.

Good has been following the seal surge by fielding phone calls from community members and taking drives around the island.

"We first started seeing a couple, and it's like, 'That's kind of weird, but OK,'" she said. "But when we started seeing 10 at a time, on one go-around, that was weird. That's unusual."

Ringed seals are ice seals. They like to hunt in Arctic waters and haul out on sea ice.

So why are so many of them down in temperate ice-free Unalaska, lounging on docks and molting on breakwaters?

"One of my theories is that they're looking for habitat," said Good. 

This winter, the Arctic ice pack was the second lowest on record, leaving seals with fewer places to rest, eat, and have their pups.

Good said that may have driven them to seek out new areas beyond their normal range.

"There's plenty of food here, as long as they can adapt to a different hunting strategy," she said. "They're used to hunting under the ice and using that ice platform. They obviously don't have that here, but maybe the breakwaters are serving that [purpose]. Or they're learning to hunt in these rocky reef areas."

For now, Good says she's not concerned about the sudden swell of ringed seals, but she is curious.

"Are they going to stay here? How are they doing in general? The ones we've been seeing so far — I would say most of them are healthy individuals," she said.

But Good has found two dead with high parasite counts, and others have patchy coats.

Good is asking Unalaskans to help keep an eye on the seals. She's tracking sightings and collecting photographs in an effort to compile better data on their health and movements.

With more information, she'll start a deeper analysis of their behavior.

Unalaskans can share their ringed seal sightings by calling 581-1876 or emailing melissa.good@alaska.edu. Please include the date, time, and location of the sighting. Photographs are also helpful.