Mystery disease affecting Alaska's Ringed Seals

Oct 21, 2011 | Anna Tomasulo |

Over 100 cases of Arctic Ringed Seals with bleeding lesions, ulcers and hair loss, have been identified off of Alaska’s north coast.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nearly half of these seals died shortly after being found. 

These seals spend the majority of their time floating on ice and rarely come on shore.  However, more and more diseased seals have been beaching themselves since July.

Biologists from North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management have begun investigations with tissue samples, but are having little luck.  This mysterious outbreak is somewhat unique; no similar outbreak has been documented in the region. The diseased seals are not limited to Alaska, however. Cases and deaths have been recorded in Canada and Russia as well. 

A spokesperson from Fisheries and Ocean’s Canada states thus far, only ringed seals have been reported with the disease.  Further, labs in Canada have determined that what is ailing their seals is not any of the following: pox virus, herpes virus, papillomavirus, morbillivirus or calicivirus.

Alaskans are concerned that this mystery disease could spread from the seals to other ocean-dwellers or even to seal predators, such as polar bears and humans. Hunting season for the Inupiat people is rapidly approaching. The local wildlife department has sent out fliers to alert those who hunt the seals that they are sick.  If seals are hunted for meat, they should be cooked thoroughly.

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