ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it’s investigating an outbreak of skin lesions that has killed about 50 seals, mainly between Barrow and Wainwright, since July.
According to a statement and data sheet from NOAA spokesperson Julie Speegle, the North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management has responded to at least 107 cases of stranded ringed seals. About 100 of the seals appeared to have lesions, and nearly half of them were dead when found or died shortly afterward.
NOAA says the disease has occurred across the Arctic, with cases reported in Russia and Canada as well as in walruses along Alaska’s Arctic coast. European scientists documented similar cases this month in harp seals near Greenland.
Symptoms have worsened among the ringed seals, which have been studied due tohair loss in recent years but have been seen ill or dead in increasing numbers this summer by scientists and hunters. Speegle says the diseased seals have shown both hair loss and skin ulcers, along with delayed molting.
“Some of the live diseased seals have exhibited lethargy and labored breathing,” Speegle wrote in Thursday’s statement. “Findings from dead seals have shown significant lesions in the skin, respiratory system, liver, lymphoid system, heart, andbrain.”
There are no conclusive findings on the disease to date, with scientists yet to identify a single cause. International wildlife researchers are continuing to test for possible bacterial, viral, fungal or toxic agents that may be responsible.
NOAA says it’s not currently known whether the condition is transferrable from seals to humans. People who come into contact with the seals in the wild should observe the following public health precautions:
• Not eating sick or diseased seals
• Wearing rubber gloves when handling the seals
• Thoroughly washing allhands and equipment after handling them
Anyone who observes unusual ringed seal behavior in the wild is asked to call authorities.
Statewide numbers include the NOAA Fisheries Alaska marine mammal stranding hotline at 1-877-925-7773, the Eskimo Walrus Commission at 907-852-0350 and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at 907-443-2271.
Residents of Barrow and Wainwright should call the North Slope Borough Division of Wildlife Management at 907-852-0350.
Nome residents should call the Marine Advisory Program with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Northwest Campus at 907-443-2397.