Several species of seal inhabit the waters of the North Pacific Ocean and its marginal seas, including the Chukchi, Bering, Beaufort and Okhotsk Seas where they form a key component of temperate and Arctic marine and estuarine food webs, including as an essential element of the subsistence cultures of many Native Peoples. There is even a population of freshwater harbor seals that inhabit Lake Iliamna, the largest lake in Alaska.
We are partnering with Native communities and with local, State and Federal research and management agencies to study the population biology, breeding and dispersal patterns of several species of seal in the North Pacific. Much of this research is directed at assisting management of seal species in this region.
Our research interests include studies on harbor seals and several species of ice seal, including spotted seals, ringed seals, bearded seals and ribbon seals. Current research is focusing on the small population of freshwater seals in Lake Iliamna.
Currently, our collaborators and supporters include:
Dave Withrow - NOAA
Corey Arnold - National Fisherman
The little studied freshwater seals of Lake Iliamna have gained a lot of attention in recent years. This is partly due to the highly publicized conflict over the proposed Pebble Mine Project that, if it proceeds, could become the largest open-pit mineral mine in the world. The location, however, is in pristine wilderness near Lake Iliamna and the head waters of the largest salmon runs in the world.
In 2012 NMFS/NOAA was petitioned to list these seals as threatened or endangered under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) and in 2016, the Agency determined that a listing was not warranted as they concluded the seals did not constitute a species, subspecies or distinct population segment (DPS) under the ESA based 'on the best scientific and commercial information available'.
A problem, however, was that there just wasn't a lot of scientific information available on the Iliamna seals. We have teamed up with Peter Boveng and his Polar Ecosystems Program at NOAA to study the Iliamna seals, including genotyping seals from DNA extracted from scat.
Surreptitious sympatry: exploring the ecological and genetic separation of spotted and harbor seals. Working with Line Cordes and Bob Small, we used satellite telemetry and genetics to study these two sibling species where their ranges overlap - Bristol Bay, Alaska. Surprisingly these species, which are difficult to distinguish in the field, had subtle rather than pronounced ecological differences and we found no evidence of hybridization. Interspecific competition may help maintain species separation. A concern now is how continuing climate change might influence the extent of ecological overlap between these two seals species and the effectiveness of current isolating mechanisms.