In 2004, the Native Village of Kotzebue received a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to undertake a project to live capture young of the year bearded seals and fit them with satellite tags that will record movement, diving and hauling out behavior. The project was funded from the new federal FWS program called Tribal Wildlife Grants. The official name of the project is “Habitat use, seasonal movements and stock structure of bearded seals in Kotzebue Sound, Alaska” and the principal investigators (PI’s) are Alex Whiting, Kathy Frost, Lloyd Lowry, Willie Goodwin and Roswell Schaeffer. The project has been designed as a cooperative effort between biologists and local Kotzebue-area hunters, and will combine local knowledge about the distribution and habits of bearded seals with the knowledge of biologists about how to catch and tag seals and to analyze data recorded by the tags.
This project responds to concerns of coastal hunters throughout northern Alaska that there is currently no ongoing directed research or management program for bearded seals an important marine mammal resource throughout western and northern Alaska. Bearded seals were identified as the highest priority for research at a July 2003 meeting of Alaska Native resource managers, scientists and state and federal agencies to discuss ice seal conservation and management. This project will provide information about habitat use and stock identification for the bearded seals found in Kotzebue Sound.
The demand for bearded seal meat and other products has not diminished as coastal lifestyles have changed. Despite their importance to coastal residents, there has been no research conducted on bearded seals in Alaska since the mid 1970s and there is no recent information on movements, abundance, population status or trends. Because bearded seals are such an important subsistence species and are hunted in so many communities throughout Alaska, it is essential to learn about their distribution, movements, stock identity, population status and natural history.
Bearded seals are the most important marine mammal subsistence species for hunters in Kotzebue Sound and they are harvested extensively in spring on the pack ice and fall in open water and as freeze-up approaches. There is currently no information about stock identity, and whether Kotzebue Sound bearded seals belong to the same stock as those hunted elsewhere in Alaska (Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas), as well as in Russia.
A variety of industrial activities occur in regions where bearded seals are found, for example Red Dog Mine shipping and port site docking north of Kotzebue, and Bering Sea crab fisheries in what are likely their wintering areas. Information provided by satellite tags will help to identify important bearded seal habitat and facilitate the development of appropriate guidelines to minimize impacts of human activities on bearded seals.
Prior to this project, bearded seals had
never been tagged in Alaska. Tag data obtained
by this study will be used to gather information
about seasonal movements, habitat use, and
diving behavior of bearded seals. This information
can then be used to help develop policies
and guidelines for human activities that
occur in bearded seal habitat. Information
on the hauling out/diving behavior of these
seals will be useful for designing methods
to census these seals and develop population
estimates that can be used in future management
1) Satellite tag 12 or more bearded seals in order to provide information about seasonal movements/locations and associations with habitat features such as bathymetry and sea ice and to determine dive depths and durations, seasonal and regional differences in diving behavior, and hauling out behavior to be used in designing better population assessment techniques and identify important bearded seal habitat that should be protected;
2) Obtain samples for use in identifying the stock using Kotzebue Sound;
3) Produce a report of findings to assist with efforts to create ice seal management plans for Alaska stocks;
4) Share the results of this study with local hunters and residents through a Science Workshop;
5) Develop a cooperative approach between the Tribe and resource managers in planning and conducting research on a marine mammals, while building the capacity of the Tribe and its members to actively participate in the research of marine mammals on which they depend for their cultural and nutritional needs.
- Summer 2004 Plan logistics, order tags
- Fall 2004 Field work to tag seals
- Fall 2004 Collect genetics samples from harvested seals
- Fall 2004-Spring 2005 Download and process location data from tagged seals, make weekly maps for distribution
- Winter 2004/2005 Begin analysis of genetics samples
- Winter 2005 Plan logistics, order tags
- Summer/Fall 2005 Field work to tag seals
- June - October 2005 Collect samples from harvested seals
- Spring 2005-spring 2006 Download and process location data from tagged seals, make weekly maps for distribution
- Winter 2005/2006 Analysis of genetics samples
- Summer 2006 Plan logistics for field
- Fall 2006 Field work to tag seals
- Ongoing Download and process location
data, make weekly maps for distribution
- Ongoing Map location data
- Ongoing Analyze location
and dive data
- Fall 2007 Community Newsletter
- December 2007 Final Report
METHODS - 2005:
(A) Seals were captured
by using large-mesh nets in open water
in fall. Kotzebue hunters participated
in or conducted all seal capture activities.
The nets used to catch seals have a solid
foam-core float line (no corks) and a thin
light lead line. They are 100’ x l2’ and have zippers on the ends so they can be joined into larger nets if needed. The nets have 12” stretch
mesh and are made of dyed twine. The
nets are designed light enough that the seals
are able to easily float and breathe
after they are caught. In addition some net
sites are shallow enough that a seal can
be touching the bottom while its head is
above water. The water where most of the
nets were set is less than 5 feet deep.
In 2005, nets were set in York’s Bay during the last half of September and near Sisualik in early October. During two weeks in late September, scientists worked with tribal member John Goodwin to set nets and tag seals. During that time information was shared about how to set nets more efficiently, where nets should be set, and methods for disentangling, tagging and measuring seals. John Goodwin received the training necessary to become an official co-investigator on the project, which allowed him to tag seals when scientists were not present. Seals were tagged under Alaska Department of Fish and Game Scientific Permit No. 358-1585 (Amendments 07 and 08).
The scientists left on September 29 th and after that all nets were set near Sisualik. Tribal member John Goodwin and Cyrus Harris both set nets along the beach at Sisualik and near Nuvugraq. They continued until October 11 th when ice conditions prevented further netting. In total, 15 bearded seal pups were tagged in 2005. Three were caught in York’s Bay and the other 12 were caught off of Sisualik. All seals captured in 2005 were found alive and in good health, except for one large pup or yearling that was captured off of Wolf Creek and drowned. Another smaller bearded seal was caught alive and healthy in the other end of the same net. The seal that was drowned was tangled in a single mesh and the anchor line was free. It is unknown why it drowned. A tribal member cooperating on the project salvaged the seal for food.
When a bearded seal was captured it was transferred from the catch net to a smaller hoop net so it could be safely restrained and transported to the tagging site. Some seals were tagged in the boat and others were taken to the beach for tagging. Each seal was measured and checked to determine whether it was a male or a female. When scientists were present each seal was sampled for blood, blubber and DNA. Satellite depth recorders (SDRs) were glued to the hair on the back of the seal using quick-setting epoxy. The tags will be shed when the animals molt in the spring. The tags used are the newest, smallest, lightest and most streamlined of tags used for seal work to date. They not only tell where the seal is located, but also how deep it dives, how long it dives, and how long it spends at the surface and at certain depths. The tags are about 4” long, an inch wide, and an inch and a half high. They are powered by a single C cell lithium battery, which is activated by being submersed in water and should last for 50,000 signals to the satellite (about one year, or until the seal molts in the spring when the tag will fall off). The tags have a 7” flexible whip antennae that is located on top of the tag and rides above the water when the seal is at the surface. The antennae are easily seen from a distance, allowing hunters to visually identify tagged seals and hopefully avoid premature removal from the project.
SDRs transmit to receivers operated by Service Argos on board National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration polar orbiting satellites. The Argos data collection and location system records the date and time of each signal received by the satellite and calculates a location for the tag whenever sufficient uplinks are received during a satellite pass. A multi-stage process will be used to screen out erroneous location records. SDRs will include a conductivity sensor that indicates whether the tag is dry or submerged and a pressure sensor to determine dive depths. Location records and associated data will be put into an ArcInfo geographic information system (GIS) and plotted using ArcView. Maps will be distributed to interested parties weekly and posted on the Tribal website.
addition, small samples of skin were obtained
for genetics analysis from subsistence-caught
seals and preserved in a solution of DMSO
and salt. These samples will be used to
examine genetic variation in mitochondrial
DNA (mtDNA) and will be contributed to
an ongoing study by ADF&G and NMFS to examine stock structure of bearded seals in Alaska. Greg O’Corry
Crowe and Aquatic Farms at the Southwest
Fisheries Science Center will analyze samples.
Greg has worked with the Alaska Beluga
Whale Committee to analyze beluga DNA and
to understand stock structure of belugas
harvested by Alaska hunters.
Fifteen bearded seal pups (ugrutchiaq) were tagged
during the fall 2005 field season for a total of 17
seals in two years. This is five more than our goal
of 12 in the original proposal for the project. Eight
were males and seven were females, which will allow
us to compare the movements and diving of males and
females. One month after tagging, all 15 tags were
still transmitting data.
members John Goodwin and Cyrus Harris,
plus friends and families, successfully
netted 12 of the 15 seals that were
tagged in 2005. John Goodwin received training
in handling and tagging live seals
and was named an official Co-Investigator
under the ADF&G Scientific Permit to
tag seals. He tagged 11 of the seals caught
after the scientific party left. Alex
Whiting tagged the last seal of the season
on October 11th.
an add-on to this project, the National
Marine Mammal Lab tagged five spotted seals
(3 pups and 2 adult males). These were
caught during bearded seal tagging activities.
Spotted seals were last tagged in 1994
in Kasegaluk Lagoon near point Lay. Winter
movement's information from the Kotzebue
spotted seals will be compared to movements
of spotted seals 10 years ago.
data for both bearded seals and spotted seals
is being distributed weekly by email to more
than 50 individuals throughout Alaska and elsewhere.
In addition, information is posted weekly on
the Kotzebue IRA web page. It will be presented
at the 16th Biennial Conference on the Biology
of Marine Mammals in December 2005. Project
participants John Goodwin and Michael Cameron
will give a project update to the Alaska Ice
Seal Committee in early 2006.
PROJECT ACTIVITIES FALL 2005
John and Pearl Goodwin conducted
reconnaissance field work in northeastern
Kobuk Lake (Hotham Inlet) on 12-13 September.
This area is locally referred to as York’s
Bay. The Goodwins set several nets but did
not catch anything nor did they see any young
bearded seals (ugurachaqs). Kathy Frost,
Rob DeLong and Michael Cameron arrived on
September 16 th. Three nets were set near
Sisualik on September 17 th. The weather
was excellent with light winds, high water
and temperatures in the low to mid-50s. No
seals were caught or seen in the area.
On September 18 th, all nets were moved
to York’s Bay. From September 18
th-28 th seal catching activities were
conducted in York’s Bay. Water depth
in this area is generally < 6 ft, with
many creeks and sloughs entering the bay.
Young bearded seals are present in these
areas during fall just before and during
freeze-up. Temperatures throughout this
period were in the high 40s or low 50s
F. It was an unseasonably warm September
with no freezing temperatures or any signs
of ice or snow.
After initial exploratory sets, seal
nets were set in two areas. The first was
near Wolf Creek and the second in or near
Ugrivik Creek. These are areas where local
residents hunt bearded seal pups in the
fall, and near where two were caught and
tagged by this project in 2004. The water
is very shallow (3-6 ft) and muddy without
much current. Creeks are surrounded by
low willow and birch tundra where young
bearded seals sometimes haul out in the
grass. Up to six nets were set each night.
Nets were checked daily unless high winds
and storm conditions prevented boating
activities. There was only one period when
nets were not checked daily, and that was
during September 21-23 when wind speeds
were 35-60 mph throughout Kotzebue Sound
and precluded all boating activity.
Two live bearded seal pups and one spotted
seal pup were caught on September 24 th
after the days of stormy weather when the
nets could not be checked. One bearded
seal pup was caught at the mouth of Wolf
Creek and the other at the mouth of Ugrivik
Creek. A second dead bearded seal pup/yearling
was caught at the mouth of Wolf Creek in
the same net (opposite end) as the live
one. The spotted seal pup was caught well
up Ugrivik Creek in a side branch near
the entrance to a small lake. All three
seals were loaded into the boat and taken
back to Kotzebue for tagging. Tagging was
done by Frost, Cameron and Delong with
assistance from Goodwins. Seals were released
several miles offshore from Kotzebue in
hopes that they would move offshore where
they would not be subject to hunting.
On September 25 th, after project nets
were set, Michael Cameron set and attended
a net at the entrance to York Bay near
Theodore Creek (66.94º N, 161.52º W).
This was a monofilament net especially
designed to catch seals during daylight
hours. This net was set under a NMML permit
to catch and tag seals as part of a different
project. Two spotted seal pups of the year
were caught within 30 minutes of net deployment.
Both were taken back to Kotzebue where
they were instrumented with SDRs and released.
These seals were released on the beach
west of Kotzebue. Information for these
seals will be reported by NMML under their
scientific research permit 782-1676.
On September 26 th, a very large male
bearded seal pup (mass estimated >350
pounds) was caught at the mouth of Wolf
Creek. This seal was sampled, measured
and tagged in the boat, then released in
the channel west of Kotzebue.
On September 27 th, no seals were caught
in York’s Bay. A high wind warning
was in effect for the next day or two,
so all nets were pulled out of York’s
Bay. Nets were reset near a sand bar/island
by the navigational channel off Kotzebue
and also near Sisualik. On September 28
th, one large male spotted seal was caught
in the offshore channel net. This seal
was tagged in the boat and released near
where it was caught. Another medium-sized
male spotted seal was caught on September
29 th in the same area. Nothing was caught
in the nets near Sisualik, although at
least one bearded seal pup was seen.
Frost, Delong and Cameron left Kotzebue
on September 29 th. John Goodwin and/or
Cyrus Harris set nets near Sisualik from
September 30 th-October 15 th. September
28 th was the first day of near-freezing
weather in Kotzebue Sound. Ice began running
out of Kobuk Lake on October 1 st and young
bearded seals were commonly seen near Sisualik
from then until freeze-up. Seals were caught
and tagged on September 30 th, October
1 st-4 th, October 7 th and October 11
th. They were caught in nets set very close
to shore, and pulled to the beach for tagging.
All but two were released at the tagging
location. Those two were released at Kotzebue.
Catch activities ceased on October 15 th
when freezing conditions and snow prevented
further netting and tagging activities.
FALL 2006 TAGGING PROJECT
PROJECT METHODS FALL 2006
Seals were captured by using
large-mesh nets in open water in fall. The
nets and methods were the same as those used
in previous years. Kotzebue hunters participated
in or conducted all seal capture activities.
Seals were tagged under Alaska Department of
Fish and Game Scientific Permit No. 358-1787-00.
In 2006, seal catching activities took place
near Sisualik mostly during October. Tribal
members John Goodwin , Cyrus Harris, and
their crews began setting nets on September
28 th . Crew members included Dan Savetilik,
Tom Jones, Doc Harris, Grover Harris and
Lee Harris. Scientists Kathy Frost , Mike
Cameron and Rob Delong arrived on October
1 st and began working with John Goodwin
in his boat for the next week. The scientists
left on October 10 th and after that all
seals were caught and tagged by John Goodwin
, Cyrus Harris and their crews. They continued
until October 27 th when freezing ice prevented
further netting. Nine bearded seal pups were
tagged off of Sisualik in 2006.
Two types of tags were put out in 2006:
1) SPLASH tags, and 2) CTD tags. SPLASH tags
provide information about seal movements
and how long and how deep the seals dive.
The same type of SPLASH tags were used in
2005. CTD tags are very new and have not
been used before on seals in Alaska . They
collect information about the temperature
and salinity of the ocean where the seal
dives. Ship-based sampling or very expensive
oceanographic buoys are currently required
to get this kind of information. The buoys
must be put out by large ships, often get
torn out by the ice, and remain in the same
place all year (not necessarily in places
important to seals). The CTD tags we put
on seals collect information in the actual
locations where seals are diving, and will
help us better understand the kinds of conditions
the seals are looking for when they
feed. Maps of seal movements will be distributed to
interested parties at least once every two weeks and
posted on the Tribal website.
PROJECT HIGHLIGHTS FALL 2006
bearded seal pups (ugrutchiaq) were tagged
during the fall 2006 field season for a
total of 26 seals in three years. This
is 14 more than our goal of 12 in the original
proposal for the project. The project was
intended to last only three years, but
because of cost efficiencies, interest
by the community, local participation and
additional contributions by the cooperators,
we were able to conduct a third year of
tagging. In 2006, f ive were males and
four were females. Overall during the three
years, 13 males and 13 females were tagged.
This sample size will allow us to compare
the movements and diving of males and females.
Two months after tagging, six tags were
still transmitting data. One tagged seal
was shot by a hunter near Shishmaref. The
other two tags failed for unknown reasons.
Tribal members John Goodwin , Cyrus Harris
and their crews netted the seals that were
tagged in 2006. Seven seals were tagged
while the scientists were in Kotzebue and
two after they left. John Goodwin and Doc
Harris assisted in tagging seals while
the scientists were present, and John tagged
or supervised the tagging of the seals
caught after they left. John is an official
Co-Investigator under the ADF&G Scientific Permit to tag seals.
Doc Harris received training in handling,
tagging and sampling live seals in 2006 and
was named a Co-Investigator under the ADF&G
Scientific Permit near the end of the project.
This means that John and Doc are authorized
to tag seals and collect samples for this
project when a biologist is not present.
As a test project, the Alaska Department
of Fish and Game (ADF&G) donated
three tags to be used on adult ringed
seals. Two females and one male ringed
seal were tagged after the scientists
left in mid to late October. Two tags
failed almost immediately for unknown
reasons, but one was successfully transmitting
two months after it was deployed. Up
until now, no researchers have been able
to catch ringed seals in open water and
tag them. They have only been caught
in the winter using dogs to find their
snow caves. We hope to further develop
this catching technique in 2007 and put
tags on 8-12 ringed seals next fall.
Movement's data for both bearded seals
and the ringed seal is being distributed
weekly or every two weeks by email to more
than 50 individuals throughout Alaska and
elsewhere. In addition, information is
posted weekly on the Kotzebue IRA web page.
Project participants John Goodwin and Michael
Cameron gave a project update to the Alaska
Ice Seal Committee in October 2006. Michael
Cameron will present a poster about the
project at the Marine Science in Alaska
Symposium in Anchorage in January 2007.
PROJECT ACTIVITIES FALL 2006
area participants for fall 2006 field work
included two crews: John Goodwin and his
crew members DanSavetilik and Tom Jones
and Cyrus Harris and his crew members Doc
Harris, Grover Harris and Lee Harris. Scientific
participants included Kathy Frost , Rob
DeLong Michael Cameron . Kotzebue IRA staff
Alex Whiting assisted with administrative
and scientific aspects of the project.
The field season took place during September
28th - October 27th , 2006 . Scientific
participants were present in Kotzebue from
October 1st -10th . From October 10th
-2th , catching activities were conducted
by John Goodwin , Cyrus Harris and their
crews. John Goodwin tagged or supervised
the tagging of seals after the scientists
left. John is a co-investigator under ADF&G's
permit to tag seals. He was assisted by
Doc Harris, who became a Co-Investigator
near the end of the project.
The first nets were set by John Goodwin
, Cyrus Harris and their crews on September
28th . Temperatures were in the low 40s
with no ice present. Fall was late to arrive
in 2006 and freeze-up was later than in
2004 or 2005. Few spotted seals were present
when the nets were first set and the bearded
seals were not yet “running.” Each crew
set three 100-250 ft nets in the Sisualiq
area in 5-10 ft of water. A ringed seal
pup was caught on September 29th and a
spotted seal pup on September 30th.
Biologists Kathy Frost , Mike Cameron
and Rob Delong arrived on October 1st
and 2nd and began accompanying John Goodwin
and his crew on October 3rd . Temperatures
continued in the high 30s and low 40s with
winds less than 15 knots. A single spotted
seal pup was caught and released on October
2nd . The first juvenile bearded seal
was caught by John Goodwin on October 3
rd when the water was quite muddy. This
was a very large (250-300#) female. She
was tagged in the boat with a SPLASH tag
by Frost and Goodwin, and released from
No bearded seals were caught on October
4th and 5th . The water was clear. A
ringed seal pup was caught and released
on October 5th . On October 6th , Goodwin's
nets caught 2 spotted seals and 1 yearling
ringed seal. Harris's crew caught 1 bearded
seal. This seal was tagged on the beach
by Cameron with an oceanographic CTD tag,
and released at the tagging site. On October
7th , 3 spotted seals and 5 bearded seals
were caught (water muddy). Four of the
bearded seals were tagged with CTD tags
and one with a SPLASH tag. All were released
at the tagging location at Sisualiq. One
spotted seal and no bearded seals were
caught on October 8th.
Frost, Delong and Cameron left Kotzebue
on October 10th . John Goodwin , Cyrus
Harris and their crews set nets near Sisualik
from October 10th -27th . One adult ringed
seal was tagged on October 12th and two
others on October 18 th and 19th. One
bearded seal pup was tagged on October
20th. The first day of freezing weather
in Kotzebue Sound was October 21st. The
final bearded seal was caught and tagged
on October 22nd. Ice began running out
of Kobuk Lake on about October 22nd and
no young bearded seals were caught after
that. All seals were caught in nets set
close to shore, and brought to the beach
for tagging. All were released at the tagging
location. Catch activities ceased on October
27th when the ocean froze.
Alex Whiting - Environmental Specialist for the Native Village of Kotzebue since 1997 and Director of the Natural Resource program. The Tribal facilitator of the project, including coordinating field activities and is on the ADF&G permit to tag seals. Tagged the last seal of the year in 2005 at Sisualik.
Kathy Frost 1994 - present Affiliate Associate Professor, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks. 1975-2000 Marine Mammal research biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Conducted research in natural history and ecology of seals and beluga whales in Alaska including distribution, movements and diving behavior (satellite tagging) of spotted seals, harbor seals, and belugas; trophic interactions (diet) of ice-associated seals; abundance and trends of marine mammal populations; habitat use and diet of harbor seals. Member/Secretary of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee.
Lloyd Lowry 1994-present Affiliate Associate Professor, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks. 1975-1986 Marine Mammals Biologist, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Fairbanks, Alaska. Design and conduct investigations of natural history and ecology of Alaskan marine mammals. 1986-2000 Marine Mammals Coordinator, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Fairbanks, Alaska. Coordinate, design, and implement conservation and research programs for Alaskan marine mammals. 1989-present Marine Mammal Commission, Committee of Scientific Advisors. 1988-present International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Seal Specialists Group.
Willie Goodwin Jr. Lifelong
hunter of bearded seals and other marine mammals
in and around Kotzebue Sound . Chairman of
the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee. Has flown
many hours of aerial surveys of beluga whales
in Kotzebue Sound and the NW Alaska coast.
Ross Schaeffer Sr. Lifelong
marine mammal hunter in and around Kotzebue
Sound . Past Chairman of the Alaska Beluga
John Goodwin Lifelong
marine mammal hunter in Kotzebue Sound .
Captain of the vessel the Sagaan, used to
assist and transport scientist' during the
2004-2006 field seasons. Trained in handling
and tagging of seals. Netted in York 's Bay
in 2005 and near Sisualiq and Nuvuraaq during
the 2005 and 2006 field seasons. Co-investigator
under ADF&G permit to tag
seals. Tagged seals captured after the
scientists departed in 2005 and 2006. He
was assisted by Brenda Goodwin, Pearl Goodwin,
Dan Savetilik and Tom Jones while netting
off of Sisualik in 2005 and 2006.