Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are still trying to determine what is killing ringed seals and walruses in Northwest and Arctic Alaska.
Since mid-July, more than 60 dead and 75 diseased seals – mostly ringed seals – have been reported in Alaska, and reports continue to come in. Scientists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service also identified diseased and dead walruses at the annual mass haul-out-at Point Lay on the Arctic Slope. It is not known whether the unidentified disease can be transmitted to humans or other sea life.
Necropsies and laboratory tests to date have found skin lesions in most cases, as well as fluid in the lungs, white spots on the liver, and abnormal growths in the brain. Some seals and walruses have undersize lymph nodes, which may indicate compromised immune systems, according to NOAA.
Federal agencies and partners have been consulting with the working group in marine mammal unusual mortality events to consider if the seal and walrus deaths met the criteria for an unusual mortality event.
Last week, the working group recommended that NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service declare an unusual mortality event for the ringed seals. That decision triggers a focused, expert investigation into the cause. A decision is pending with the US Fish and Wildlife Service for a similar for the walruses.