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NOAA Scientists seeking answers in skin lesion disease outbreak in ringed seals


Juneau, AK — NOAA Fisheries is working with a group of international wildlife researchers to find out what is causing a disease outbreak in Arctic seals, primarily in ringed seals. The disease is most visible as skin lesions.

Since July, the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management has responded to at least 107 cases of stranded ringed seals, mainly between Barrow and Wainwright. About 100 of those ringed seals appeared to have skin lesions, and nearly half of the animals were dead when found, or died shortly after.

Similar cases have been reported in Russia and Canada, and in walruses along the Arctic coast of Alaska. In October, European scientists documented similar cases in harp seals around Greenland.  At this point it is not known if multiple species are affected by the same agent or whether these are all independent events. 

Although abnormal hair loss has been under investigation in ringed seals for several years, this summer hunters and researchers started seeing more severe signs of illness as well as dead seals. Diseased ringed seals have exhibited hair loss, delayed molting, and skin ulcers. Some of the live diseased seals have exhibited lethargy and labored breathing. Findings from dead seals have shown significant lesions in the skin, respiratory system, liver, lymphoid system, heart, and brain.

Laboratory findings have been inconclusive to date, and scientists have not yet pinpointed a single cause of this disease. A group of international wildlife researchers continue to test for a wide range of possible factors, including: bacterial, viral, fungal, or toxic agents that may be responsible for the animals’ condition.

It is not known if the condition can be passed from the seals to humans, but those who come into contact with these animals in the wild should take the following recommended public health precautions:

* Do not eat any animals that appear sick or diseased;
* Wear rubber gloves when handling the animals;
* Thoroughly wash hands and all equipment after handling the animals;
* Fully cook any and all meat before eating.

Please contact one of the following wildlife management agencies to report any unusual animal behavior or sightings:

NOAA Fisheries Alaska marine mammal stranding hotline: 1-877-925-7773.

Barrow, Wainwright:  North Slope Borough Division of Wildlife Management at (907) 852-0350

Nome:  Marine Advisory Program/UAF-Northwest Campus at (907) 443-2397
The Eskimo Walrus Commission at (907) 443-4380 or 1-877-277-4392
Alaska Department of Fish and Game (907) 443-2271

NOAA Fisheries has developed a fact sheet on this outbreak (attached), which has more in-depth information as well as a list of more than a dozen cooperating agencies and organizations conducting the investigation. It will be posted on the Alaska Region website Friday morning at: http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Join us on Facebook , Twitter and our other social media channels. To learn more about NOAA Fisheries in Alaska, visit alaskafisheries.noaa.gov or www.afsc.noaa.gov.

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