Baby seals are appearing on local beaches in greater numbers this year, with over 20 reported sightings in Nome, and a few others recorded in Wales, Teller and Shaktoolik.
Brandon Ahmasuk, subsistence program director at Kawerak, said that’s because sea ice broke up earlier this spring following a warm winter. The seal pups need to leave the water and get into the sun to grow their fur coats and lose their white juvenile coats. And without ice to sunbathe on, the seals have been heading to the beaches.
“They’re weaned after about two weeks to a month and then the mother is done with them—they’re left to fend for themselves,” said Ahmasuk. “That’s just the nature of the animal. Unfortunately for the seals, this year, we had an early spring and the ice took off.”
For some, these sightings could be unusual. While a passerby might have good intentions, Gay Sheffield, marine advisory program agent at UAF in Nome, said it’s important to know that these seals are exhibiting natural behavior. People should not try to feed them or put them back in the water.
“Unless you’re using them for subsistence purposes, the best thing to do is don’t approach them, enjoy viewing them,” said Sheffield. “And we’d like to document where they’re going, what kind and how many we’re getting.”
After a bout of seal sickness in 2011 that caused marine mammal regulators to begin monitoring unusual deaths of seals, Sheffield and Ahmasok are documenting all reported pups to be certain there are no traces of disease. So far, all reported seals have been healthy.
Ahmasuk also recommends that unless you have a permit to do so, it’s best not to approach these beached pups. The four species of seals familiar to the Bering Strait region—bearded, ringed, spotted and ribbon—known collectively as “ice seals,” are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which is federally regulated. According to the act, any type of “harassment” that “causes disruption of behavioral patterns” of a marine mammal could result in substantial fines.
Sheffield believes fewer seals will likely be coming to the beaches as summer gets underway. In the meantime, if you think any marine wildlife is in distress, you can contact Gay Sheffield at 443-2397 and 434-1149 or Brandon Ahmasuk at 443-4265.