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Conservation of seals at Alaska

  • Context (DTE): Scientists and Indigenous leaders team up to conserve seals at Yakutat, Alaska.

Ancestral balance between people and nature

  • Migrating clans of the Eyak, Ahtna and Tlingit tribes settled the Yakutat fjord as the glacier retreated.
  • Clan leaders managed the hunt to avoid premature harvesting, overhunting or waste.
  • Tlingit residents continue this way of life in modern form, harvesting more than 100 different fish, birds, sea mammals, land game and plants for subsistence use.
  • Harbour seals are the most important; their rich meat and blubber are prepared using traditional recipes and eaten at everyday meals and memorial potlatch feasts.

Reasons for decline

Commercial hunting

  • The US purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 disrupted traditional sealing at Yakutat.
  • Yakutat was a principal hunting ground for the new industry from about 1870 to 1915.
  • Commercial hunting overtaxed seals’ capacity to reproduce, and the population crashed in the 1920s.
  • In the 1960s, the rise in prices for skins led to hunting exceeding the sustainable yield.
  • The seal population declined by 80 per cent—90 per cent.
  • Commercial sealing ended in 1972 with the Marine Mammal Protection Act, yet seals never recovered.

Climatic factors

  • Ocean warming, driven by global climate change and an unfavourable cycle of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, has reduced the number of fish that are important in seals’ diets.

Conservation efforts

  • Natives have changed their diet & reduced hunting, allowing the seals to raise their pups undisturbed.
  • The community cooperates with the authorities to monitor and co-manage the herd, contributing their indigenous expertise.
  • They have also been active in efforts to protect the seal rookery from disturbance by cruise ships.
  • The Yakutat people are recommitting to ancestral principles of responsible care and spiritual regard for seals, seeking to ensure the species’ survival.

Harbour Seal (Phoca vitulina)

  • These are “true seals” of the Phocidae family, also sometimes called “common” or “hairseals.
  • They are covered with short, stiff, bristle-like hair. Colouration varies, but two basic patterns occur: light grey sides and belly with dark blotches or spots or a dark background with light rings.
  • Only a small hole on either side of their heads, with no ear flaps, distinguishes them from sea lions.
  • Harbour seals have a metabolic rate higher than land mammals of similar size, allowing them to generate a greater amount of body heat.
  • They are good swimmers. However, on land, they move awkwardly by undulating in a caterpillar-like motion because their pelvic bones are fused.
  • They can remain submerged for over 20 minutes. Oxygen-conserving adaptations that allow such dives include high blood volume, reduced peripheral circulation, reduced heart rate, and high levels of myoglobin (the oxygen-binding protein in muscle).
  • Harbour seals periodically emerge from the water to rest, give birth, and nurse their pups. In winter, they spend up to 80% of their time in the water.
  • Young pups are able to swim almost immediately after birth. Mature females mate shortly after weaning their pups. The embryo’s development is suspended for about 11 weeks, a trait called embryonic diapause (i.e., delayed implantation).
  • Diet: Fishes, octopus, and squid.
  • Behaviour: Usually solitary in water, but haul out in groups of a few to thousands.
  • Range: The North Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Alaska’s coast extends from Dixon Entrance north to Kuskokwim Bay and west throughout the Aleutian Islands.
  • IUCN status: LC.

    Harbour Seal (Phoca vitulina) - PMF IAS

    Credits: Alskasealife

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