Scientists don’t know why ice seals are appearing in ice-free Unalaska

In early February, a yearling ringed seal turned up in Unalaska. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Good)

In the past year, two ice seals have turned up in Unalaska — way outside their natural range. The first was spotted in late February 2017 and less than a year later another was photographed near town.

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Melissa Good, with SeaGrant, says ringed seals don’t belong in Unalaska.

“Ringed seals are ice-associated seals so they live and kind of work around the ice,” Good said. “They want to haul out on the ice for pupping, molting and resting.”

Good has lived in Unalaska for seven years, and has only seen two ringed seals — both in the last year. She was able to send last year’s seal to the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward where the animal made a full recovery.

But the most recent seal was not as healthy.

“If you see a seal out of the water laying on a rock, it looks kind of like a sausage. It’s fat and it’s round,” Good said. “When you start being able to see it’s hip bones and you start seeing a hump on its back, that usually means it doesn’t have a lot of fat on it.”

By the time Good was able to recover this seal, it was too late. The yearling had died. Results from a necropsy may shed some light on why there seem to be more ringed seals popping up in Unalaska.

The pathologist will look for unusual bacteria, parasites or viruses. Good thinks parasites might be the key.

“A lot of the marine mammals that they are getting in to the [Alaska Sealife] center have heavier parasite loads then they have normally seen in the past,” Good said. “They are contributing a lot of these parasite loads to warmer water conditions.”

It’s too soon to know exactly what’s happening, but Good says it could be a combination of things. At this point though, she isn’t too concerned. Good’s optimistic that with more community interest and awareness of marine visitors, she’ll be able to respond faster to stranded animals and better note changes in the environment.

Zoe Sobel is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk based in Unalaska. As a high schooler in Portland, Maine, Zoë Sobel got her first taste of public radio at NPR’s easternmost station. From there, she moved to Boston where she studied at Wellesley College and worked at WBUR, covering sports for Only A Game and the trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

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