ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The National Marine Fisheries Service said dozens of seals are dead and now walruses are also showing signs of an unusual skin-lesion outbreak on Alaska's north-west coast.
Scientists are investigating if a skin disease found on those seals is leading to their death, and whether the outbreaks in the two species, which biologists say they've never seen in the past, are related.
NOAA said scientists have found lesions on about 100 ringed seals since mid-July on beaches between Barrow and Wainwright. Nearly half of them were found dead or died shortly after.
"We think they're related, but we don't know if they're the direct cause of the deaths," said North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management Biologist Jason Herreman.
Biologists have seen similar cases on seals in Russia, Canada, and as far East as Greenland.
Now, biologists are investigating if those lesions have anything to do with the ones seen on walruses.
U.S. Geological Survey Wildlife Biologist Tony Fischbach saw the walruses first-hand at Point Lay.
He was putting radio tags on walruses for a project that tracks data and understand their behavior. He said he saw deep marks from their nose to their toes.
"The one I had noticed remarkably was a young calf who lost its mother who was lying on the beach who had all these marks," said Fischbach. "As the walruses were coming ashore every one of them would stop what they're doing, come over, and nuzzle this little guy and try to move him along which he was pretty unresponsive, lethargic."
Fischbach said he does not know if the lesions are the cause of death of a number of walrus calves, and he does not know if they're related to the skin disease found on Arctic seals. He said they'll have to wait for results from samples sent to labs.
"I don't know if this is a level of a bubonic plague or a bad case of acne," said Fischbach. "We're waiting to hear back from people who are working up the cultures to try to understand it."
But what he can confirm is that walruses are not behaving normally. They're coming to shore more often, and he added there are many factors to consider. Meanwhile, agencies are keeping a close eye on other animals, like polar bears, that consider seals, a meal.
"Of course we're looking into Arctic Fox which could be consuming carcasses on the beach and keeping an eye out to see if we see any other signs of disease," said Herreman.
NOAA said it does not know if the condition can be passed from seals to humans, but the North Slope Borough Division of Wildlife Management said, up to this point, they don't know of any cases of people affected by this problem.
NOAA advises people not to eat any animals that appear sick, wear rubber gloves when handling the animals, to wash their hands and equipment after handling the animals, and fully cook all meat before eating.
To report any unusual animal behavior or sightings, contact NOAA Fisheries Alaska marine stranding hotline at 1-877-925-7773.