A spotted seal pup was one of many found dead on beaches near Shishmaref this summer. NOAA declared a UME due to the increased numbers of dead marine mammal stranded on the region's beaches.

Feds declare unusual mortality event for three ice seal species

The federal agency tasked to manage ice seals this week declared an Unusual Mortality Event, UME for short, for bearded, ringed and spotted seals in the Bering and Chukchi seas. This comes in response to increased reports that dead seals have been found on the region’s beaches. NOAA declared the UME after having received reports since June 2018 of 282 dead seals, with 119 stranded seals in 2018 and 163 in 2019. Since June 1, 2018, strandings of 85 bearded, 66 ringed, 40 spotted and 91 unidentified stranded ice seals were reported. The increase in ice seal mortality is nearly five times the average number of reported strandings, which is about 29 seals annually.
According to NOAA, an UME will bring more focus, expertise and resources to help investigating what caused the die-off. A UME is defined as a “stranding event that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off and demands immediate response.” “We concluded that the ice seal die-off met the first criterion: A marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in the nature of morbidity, mortality, or strandings when compared with prior records,” said a NOAA press release.
The UME includes the Beringia distinct population segment of bearded seals, listed under the ESA as threatened; Arctic ringed seals, also listed as threatened and the Bering population of spotted seals, which are not listed.
The agency said that reports of stranded seals primarily occurred from June to September. All age classes of ice seals were reported. Some seals were sampled for harmful algal blooms and health parameters. When possible, skin was collected from stranded seals to help determine the species. The agency said that results are pending.
In a curious request, the press release included the public to donate funds to help with the UME investigation. “The public may use Pay.gov to donate to the Marine Mammal UME Contingency Fund for this or other UMEs and help cover costs incurred by the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network.”
The last UME involving ice seals was opened in May 2011 and ended in December 2016 without conclusive results.
The UME was declared as ice seals had delayed or interrupted molt, hair loss and chronic skin changes and showed unusual lethargic behavior. According to a final report that closed the UME in December 2016, there was no consensus within the UME core group on a hypothesis for a primary cause for the disease.  Despite extensive testing, a primary infectious cause was not confirmed. “From a wildlife biology and epidemiologic perspective, clinical cases presented over a wide geographic range in all four ice-associated seal species, with each species having species-specific niches in diets, sea ice habitat, and migration timing with little overlap - except for the timing of molt process during springtime,” says the report. “These observations tended to rule out dietary and infectious causes.  If there was a climate change associated environmental causation (e.g. lack of sea ice), conditions are likely to continue and potentially progress.”

How to report a dead seal
The public should report dead, injured, or sick marine mammals by calling NOAA’s Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network at (877) 925-7773, or for the Norton Sound and Bering Strait region contact Kawerak Subsistence Director 443-4265 or UAF Alaska Sea Grant agent Gay Sheffield 434-1149.

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