Wintering Areas and Habitat Use of Ringed Seals in Kotzebue Sound, Alaska: A Community-Based Study

Information on seasonal movements, habitat use and dive behavior are very limited for ringed seals in Alaska , despite their importance for subsistence, as the major prey for polar bears, and as a species likely to be greatly impacted by climate warming. Satellite tagging conducted by this project is beginning to provide this information and will serve as a baseline for evaluating future environmental change. This project involves Tribal members in planning and conducting research activities, and will serve as an example for how this can be done in other areas.

 

In the past, many marine mammal research projects in Alaska have been conducted with little or no involvement of local Tribal members in planning, field work or interpretation of results. This project, like it's predecessor “Community-based tagging of bearded seals”, is ground-breaking because Tribal members are responsible for developing capture techniques, tagging and sampling seals. Two Tribal participants are included as Co-Investigators under the scientific permit to conduct this work. This project is one of the few times in Alaska that Tribal members have been trained and authorized as Co-investigators under a marine mammal research permit.

This project addresses concerns of coastal Alaskan subsistence hunters and scientists relative to ringed seals, which have been the subject of limited directed research. There is no management program for ringed seals (or other ice seals), which are important subsistence resources. There is a critical need to further marine mammal research in Alaska with Tribal involvement and to develop management strategies for ice seals where none currently exist.

 

Objectives:

 

  1. Build Tribal capacity for a proactive role in planning and conducting research on a marine mammal species of Tribal importance, further demonstrating the value of Tribal participation and traditional knowledge in accomplishing these goals. Contribute to building the foundation for management of marine mammals, including ringed seals, in northwest Alaska . Educate Tribal members through their direct participation in wildlife research projects.

  2. Refine methods for catching adult ringed seals in open water through a collaborative program involving Kotzebue-area Tribal members/hunters and biologists. Hunters will be responsible for methods development.

  3. Satellite tag 20 adult ringed seals in Kotzebue Sound over a 2-yr period, 2007 and 2008, with catching and tagging done primarily by Tribal members.

  4. Analyze seasonal movements, diving behavior, and habitat use of ringed seals tagged in Kotzebue Sound ; interpret relative to possible impacts of climate change on ringed seals, and; provide results to polar bear biologists.

  5. Share the results of this study with local hunters, residents, and other interested parties through the Kotzebue IRA website, regular distribution of maps by e-mail, presentations at meetings and conferences, and a Community Report newsletter.

 

Time Line:

YEAR 1

Summer 2007

Plan logistics, order tags

October 2007

Field work to tag ringed seals in Kotzebue Sound

October 2007-May 2008

Download and process location data from tagged seals, distribute maps and make maps and project information available on project web site

Winter 2007/2008

Present study results to Ice Seal Committee, Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, Eskimo Walrus Commission, and Alaska Marine Science Symposium

Summer 2008

Preliminary analysis of data to guide the next field season


YEAR 2

Spring/Summer 2008

Plan logistics, order tags

October 2008

Field work to tag ringed seals in Kotzebue Sound

October 2008-May 2009

Download and process location data from tagged seals, distribute maps and make maps and project information available on project web site

Winter 2008/2009

Present study results to Ice Seal Committee, Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, Eskimo Walrus Commission, and Alaska Marine Science Symposium

Summer 2009

Analysis of location and dive data


YEAR 3

September-October 2009

Complete analysis of location and dive data

November 2009

Share results with local residents through Community Report

December 2009

Present study results at Biennial Conference on Biology of Marine Mammals

December 2009

Submit Final report to FWS

 

Proposed Methods:


Tribal members are involved in all stages of the study, including tagging and biological sampling. Tribal members have, as part of the bearded seal tagging study and the 2006 pilot ringed seal tagging project, received training in the handling, measuring, sampling and tagging of seals. Two Tribal participant “taggers” have been designated as Co-Investigators under the marine mammal research permit under which this project will operate, and will be authorized to tag and sample seals. Additional Tribal members will participate in, learn about and be trained in catching, tagging and sampling seals.

Before this project, research methods did not exist for capturing ringed seals on open water in fall. The only time this had been done was by the Tribal Grants project to capture bearded seals and during a pilot ringed seal project in 2006. The tagging teams catch ringed seals in October immediately before (and during) freeze-up. The project uses local logistics provided by hunters, and hunters catch and tag the seals. Biologist Kathy Frost participates for part of the time to assist with tagging and collecting biological samples such as blood, and to train Tribal members in these techniques. Specially designed “seal nets” measuring 12 ft x 100 ft, 12 ft x 50 ft, or 12 ft x 250 ft, constructed of 12-in stretch mesh, are used for seal capture. When caught, seals are removed from nets and taken to shore for processing. During handling, seals are weighed using a bipod made by John and Pearl Goodwin. They are then measured and tagged in the hind flippers with individually numbered tags.  In conjunction with flipper tagging, a small (0.5 cm diameter) skin punch is taken from each flipper for use in genetics studies.  Two test tubes of blood are collected from the extradural intervertebral vein (on top of the back bone near the hips).


The original proposal was to instrument at least 20 adult ringed seals over a 2-yr period with SPLASH tags manufactured by Wildlife Computers, Inc. These tags are glued to the hair on the back of the seal behind the neck using quick-setting epoxy. The tags provide information about location and diving behavior through the fall and winter. They fall off when the seals molt the following spring. In addition, we proposed to attach location-only SPOT tags to the hind flipper of six seals using a post through the skin between the toe bones of the hind flipper . The tag was slipped into the holes and a screw attached to secure it in place. The SPOT tags only transmit when the seals haul out since the hind flippers remain underwater when the seal surfaces for air. Because the SPOT tags do not fall off during the annual molt, they can provide information on longer term movements, site fidelity and stock questions as well as information about hauling out behavior during the molt.


Location:


The area of investigation is in northwest Alaska , specifically northern Kotzebue Sound . The field camp is located at Sisualik Spit about 10 miles north of Kotzebue.

 

Ringed Seal Map

 

Principal Investigators:

 

Alex Whiting – Environmental Specialist for the Native Village of Kotzebue 1997-present. Completed and ongoing grant projects through the USDA, EPA, BIA, FWS, NPS, NSF, AK Native Health Board, State of Alaska , Leopold Institute and First Nations. A uthorized to tag seals as a Co-Investigator under ADF&G's Scientific Research permit in 2004-2009.

Kathy Frost – Marine ecologist who has conducted research on marine mammals in Alaska since 1975. Research focuses on natural history and ecology of seals and beluga whales in Alaska including distribution, movements and diving behavior (satellite tagging) of spotted seals, harbor seals, bearded seals and belugas; trophic interactions of ice-associated seals; abundance and trends of marine mammal populations; habitat use and diet of harbor seals. 2000 to present – Alaska Marine Ecosystems Research. 1994 to present - Affiliate Associate Professor, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks. 1975 to 2000 - Marine Mammal Research Biologist for ADF&G

 

John Goodwin – Alaska Native hunter who has lived in the Kotzebue area for more than 50 years, and spent his entire life learning about the ocean and the marine mammals of the Kotzebue Sound area. Familiar with currents, weather conditions, ice conditions, and water depths in Kotzebue Sound. Experienced in setting and handling nets and removing animals from nets through experience as a commercial salmon fisherman and through his use of nets to fish for beluga whales and seals. Holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton masters License. Participated in catching, tagging and sampling bearded, spotted and ringed seals in Kotzebue Sound in 2004-2008. Authorized to tag seals as a Co-Investigator under ADF&G’s Scientific Research permit in 2005-2008. Has participated in four seal research cruises in the Bering Sea tagging ice seals and is the Maniilaq Representative as well as the Chairman of the Alaska Ice Seal Committee..

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Research Assistants:

 

Jeff Barger (2008), Cyrus Harris (07-08), Grover Harris Sr. (07-08), Grover Harris Jr. (2008), Lee Harris (2007), Nereus Doc Harris III (07-08), Edward Ahyakak (2008), Jerry Jones Sr. (07-08) – All local Tribal members with many years experience living off the land and catching marine mammals for sustenance. All except Jerry Jones, have participated in the bearded seal tagging project recently concluded in Kotzebue Sound . Lee Harris also spent May 2007 in the Bering Sea aboard the research vessel Healy tagging and studying ice seals.

 

Pearl Goodwin –

John Goodwin's wife and camping partner is responsible for recording data and taking pictures of the seals captured and tagged, and making sure all samples are labeled properly.

 

Cooperators:

 

Native Village of Kotzebue – In addition to the activities funded under this proposal, the Tribe is contributing the following: 1) funds to pay tagging fees for 10 or more ringed seals, 2) start-up costs for the project prior to arrival of scientific party (gas, oil, etc.).

 

Alaska Department of Fish and Game – ADF&G's Arctic Marine Mammal Program is collaborating as follows: 1) contributing 6 satellite-linked SPLASH and 6 SPOT5 tags and Argos data acquisition time for 20 tags, 2) contributing equipment, supplies and field logistics as necessary to complete the project, 3) conducting analysis of seal movements and dive data, 4) providing regularly updated maps of seal movements to be posted on Kotzebue IRA project website, 5) authorizing capture and tagging of seals to be conducted under ADF&G's Scientific Research permit.

 

Selawik National Wildlife Refuge – The Selawik National Wildlife Refuge provides the use of their bunk house in Kotzebue during field work and other project activities.

 

Shell Exploration & Production Company – Shell provided funds for purchase and deployment of 13 SPLASH tags in 2008.

 

FALL 2008 - PROJECT METHODS AND RESULTS

 

Our project originally proposed to put 20 satellite tags on ringed seals during two years of field work (2007 and 2008). Conditions were good in 2007 for catching seals and 14 seals were tagged, more than half our goal. In order to have a good sample again in 2008, additional funds to purchase more tags were pursued. One of the things the tags will do is provide information about whether and how the tagged seals use the areas where Shell and other companies are exploring for oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea. For this reason, we wrote a proposal to Shell for funds to purchase additional tags. Shell supplemented our TWG grant with enough funds to purchase, deploy and download data for 13 more SPLASH tags.

 

The goal for the 2008 field season was to tag 15-20 ringed seals, preferably seals older than pups or yearlings. This is because many young seals (especially pups) do not survive through the winter. The Principal Investigators were Kathy Frost, Alex Whiting , and John Goodwin . The Research Assistants were Jeff Barger, Jerry Jones Sr., Doc Harris III, Cyrus Harris, Grover Harris Sr., Grover Harris Sr., Edward Ahyakak and Pearl Goodwin. Seals were tagged under Alaska Department of Fish and Game Scientific Permit No. 358-1787-01.

 

As in 2007, the base of field operations was located at the Tribal Elders Camp at the tip of the Sisualik spit 10 miles north of Kotzebue across the inner Sound. John and Pearl Goodwin were the field managers of the camp and directed catching and tagging activity. There were two seal catching crews in 2008, one led by John Goodwin and the other by Cyrus Harris.

 

The field camp was established on October 2nd. Biologist Kathy Frost arrived at camp on October 9 th and left on October 22nd. ADF&G biologist Justin Crawford, who will be mapping the ringed seal tagging data during the winter, flew to Kotzebue and spent several days at seal camp near the end of the project learning about the tagging operation and photographing the tagging crew doing its work.

 

Jim Kincaid of Northwestern Aviation supplied transportation to and from Kotzebue for personnel and supplies. All-terrain vehicles were used to transport supplies, gear, seals, personnel, boats and generally be able to move about Sisualik. Boats small enough to be beached were used to check nets.

 

Seals were caught with the same nets that were used in the Kotzebue Sound bearded seal tagging project and for the 2007 ringed seal project. After the 2007 field season, the nets were repaired and re-hung. They got new float rope to replace the old worn out float rope and all of the nets were re-dyed because they had faded over the previous four years. Zippers were removed and sections were sewn together to make four 250-long straight hanging nets.

 

Capture activities began on October 2nd, 2008 , the first night the camp was established. Each of the two crews had its own boat and set out and tended two 250-ft seal nets, for 1000 ft of net in the water each day. The nets were set at different locations along Sisualik spit depending on water and ice conditions and where the seals seemed to be. The nets were in the water fishing every night except one (due to ice) for the next three weeks. Kotzebue hunters conducted all seal capture activities.

 

When a seal was caught, it was removed from the net and placed in a hoop net in the boat for transfer back to the beach. Seals were taken out of the boat and moved from the boat to camp using an ATV with a trailer to hold the seal.

 

When a seal reached camp, it was either sampled and released if it was too small or tagged if it was big enough. The seals that were released without satellite tags were weighed and measured. Sex was recorded, a small skin sample was taken from the hind flipper for genetic testing, blood was taken, and a numbered plastic tag was put in the hind flipper. Measurements included curve length from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail, straight length from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail, girth behind the front flippers, and maximum girth around the belly.

 

If a seal was large enough (more than 60 pounds), it was also satellite tagged in addition to everything that was done to smaller seals. The taggers put a small amount of acetone on the fur to clean it and rubbed the fur dry. The tags were fitted in the neck saddle as it slopes towards the shoulders. The correct spot for the tag was drawn with a black marker. The 5-minute epoxy glue was mixed in two small batches. The first batch went onto the bottom of the tag and also on the mesh and fur of the seal. The glue was spread in a very thin layer so that it didn't get too hot on the seal's skin. When that layer dried, the second batch was used to cover any places that were missed. After the second layer of glue was dry, the tag was turned on, data sheets were checked to make sure the tag number was written down and all of the data were complete, and the seal was taken to the water and released.

 

For the first time in 2008, we were able to spin blood and separate the serum in camp instead of bringing it back to town. ADF&G purchased a battery operated centrifuge for the project to use. After seal handling and tagging operations were completed for the day, blood was taken inside, spun for 20 minutes in the centrifuge, and the serum poured off into special vials for freezing.

 

The first 2008 ringed seal was caught on October 3rd, the first night the nets were set, but it was too small to tag. The first tagger seal was caught on October 10th. Twelve more ringed seals were tagged between then and October 21st, for a total of 13. In addition, 29 other small ringed seals were caught, sampled and released. DNA samples were collected from all 42 seals, and blood was taken from 31.
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Females
October 27, 2008
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Males
October 27, 2008
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Females
November 10, 2008
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Males
November 10, 2008
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Females
November 17, 2008
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Males
November 17, 2008
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Females
December 29, 2008
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Males
December 29, 2008
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Females
February 2, 2009
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Males
February 2, 2009
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Females
March 9, 2009
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Males
March 9, 2009
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Females
April 6, 2009
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Males
April 6, 2009
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Females
May 18, 2009
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Males
May 18, 2009
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Females
July 6, 2009
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Males
July 6, 2009
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FALL 2007 - PROJECT METHODS AND RESULTS

 

Two types of tags were put out in 2007: (12) SPLASH tags and (4) SPOT tags. SPLASH tags provide information about seal movements and how long and how deep the seals dive. SPLASH tags provide more frequent location data as they are able to transmit when the antennae is above water which happens when the seal surfaces for air or hauls out on ice. The SPLASH tags were fitted in the neck saddle as it slopes towards the shoulders and glued on the hair using 5-minute epoxy. All twelve SPLASH tags were successfully deployed.

 

 

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SPOT tags are attached to the hind flipper by punching two holes through the skin between the toe bones. The tag has a clip on its underside which is slipped into the hole closest to the body so the antennae points away from the flipper. The tag is secured through the second hole using a small screw. Spot tags only transmit when the seal hauls out of the water, since the hind flippers remain underwater when the seal surfaces for air.

 

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The goal for the season was to tag 18 ringed seals in Kotzebue Sound, preferably adult seals older than two years of age. The Principal Investigators were Kathy Frost, Alex Whiting, and John Goodwin. The Research Assistants were Lee Harris, Jerry Jones, Doc Harris III, Cyrus Harris, Grover Harris Sr., and Pearl Goodwin.

 

The base of field operations was located at the Tribal Elders Camp at the tip of the Sisualik spit 10 miles north of Kotzebue across the inner Sound. John and Pearl Goodwin were the field managers of the camp and directed catching and tagging activity. Seals were brought to the tent where they could be worked on in a warmer place out of the wind.

 

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Jim Kincaid of Northwestern Aviation supplied transportation to and from Kotzebue for personnel and supplies. All-terrain vehicles were used to transport supplies, gear, seals, personnel, boats and generally be able to move about Sisualik. Aluminum boats small enough to be beached were used to check nets


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The seals were captured using the same nets that had successfully been used on the recently concluded Kotzebue Sound bearded seal tagging project. The nets were 200 feet long and used float line instead of individual floats. 30 pound mud pick anchors were used to secure them in place and A3 polyform buoys were used to mark their location. Capture efforts began on 10/05/2007 when the camp became occupied and nets went out in the water. Kotzebue hunters conducted all seal capture activities. Seals were tagged under Alaska Department of Fish and Game Scientific Permit No. 358-1787-00. Seals were placed in hoop nets for transfer to the tagging tent where they were restrained using stretchers.

 

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The conditions this year were on the early freeze-up side with most of the inner sound having been frozen by the time the project started. This was 3 weeks earlier than in the past three seasons of seal capture work. This meant additional work and vigilance to keep the nets fee of ice and working.

 

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A revised field note book was developed and extra efforts were made to get complete morphometric and catch information for each satellite tagged seal. A bipod and sling were made by John and Pearl to weigh seals on the beach. This worked very successfully and allowed us to get weights on live ringed seals and young bearded seals, which has rarely been done in the field before.

 

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Kathy Frost came to Kotzebue and went to the tagging camp on 10/15/2007 and began taking blood samples from all seals captured, whether satellite tagged or not. She also trained the capture team to collect blood. Team members first practiced on a dead bearded seal so they could understand the process better. DNA was also collected during the entire project from all seals possible.

 

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The first tag was put out on 10/11 and the last tagged seal was released on 10/26 when the camp was shut down due to harsh ice conditions. By the time the project ended, 16 of the 18 satellite tags had been successfully attached to ringed seals. See monthly maps below for current tracking of the seal movments.

 

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November 13, 2007
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December 10, 2007

 

Females

 

Males

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December 24, 2007
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December 24, 2007
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December 31 to January 15
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February 15, 2008
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March 1 - February 15, 2008
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May 5, 2008
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May 1 to June 15, 2008
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July 7 - August 13, 2008