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In the Field with Ice Seals: A Q&A with NOAA Scientist Peter Boveng

NOAA Lists Ringed and Bearded Ice Seal Populations Under the Endangered Species Act

NOAA Fisheries announced today, in compliance with a court ordered deadline, its final listing decision for four subspecies of ringed seals and two distinct population segments (DPSs) of bearded seals under the Endangered Species Act. NOAA will list as threatened the Beringia and Okhotsk DPSs of bearded seals and the Arctic, Okhotsk, and Baltic subspecies of ringed seals. The Ladoga subspecies of ringed seals will be listed as endangered. The species that exist in U.S. waters (Arctic ringed seals and the Beringia DPS of bearded seals) are already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

The listing determinations, related Federal Register documents, status review reports, and other background information are available on the NOAA Fisheries Alaska region website

Boveng, left, prepares to attach a tracking tag to a bearded seal while others on the field team keep the seal cool on a warm June day in Kotzebue Sound, Alaska. 

NOAA scientists analyze thermal infrared image in aerial photos. Shown in the top image, a seal shows up clearly against the ice. Having located the seal, scientists then identify the species by zooming in on the corresponding high-resolution digital image (bottom). 

NOAA Fisheries scientists track ice seal movements using satellite tags. This map shows the movements of three ice seals in the Chukchi Sea.





December 21, 2012

Marine ecologist Peter Boveng, an ice seal expert and the leader of NOAA’s Polar Ecosystems Program talks about the importance of ice seals, the threats they face, and the new technology used to study them. He also describes how scientists rely on Alaska Native communities when conducting ice seal research. Without their collaboration and help, Boveng says, some of his work would be much more difficult and dangerous.

What is it like to work in the field studying ice seals?

Typically, we work in the summer. But that doesn’t mean it’s warm. Often it’s fairly cold, and often we can’t work because the wind is blowing too hard. It’s more a safety concern than a comfort concern—ice being pushed around by the wind, and poor visibility, and us going out on small boats into the ice to find seals and put satellite tags on them.

More and more, we’re working with Alaska Native partners. Some of the people in communities that have evolved and lived with seals for centuries have very in-depth knowledge about seal biology and insights into seal behavior. Not to mention the fact that they know how to get out and work safely in their surroundings.

Doing that is a great way to exchange information. The people we work with learn about the science and what it takes to get good scientific results, and we learn some of the traditional knowledge about these species and their surroundings. We don’t have a background in anthropology or in documenting traditional knowledge. For us wildlife biologists, it works best just to get out and rub elbows and work together.

Why is it so hard to study ice seals?

Their habitat is remote and isolated, and it’s expensive and dangerous to get to. Also, ice seals evolved with predators like polar bears and humans, so they are wary by nature. 

But we’re working on closing some of the data gaps. For example, this past year we started doing large-area aerial surveys. These are now possible, thanks to changes in technology. We’re able to use relatively low-cost sensors—infrared thermal cameras and high-resolution digital cameras—mainly off-the-shelf consumer equipment that we point down at the ice as we fly. Using these, we get much better estimates of seal populations, and it’s safer and less expensive than before.

Why are ice seals important?

First, they are key components of Arctic marine ecosystems. These are high-level predators, and they play an important role in the food webs of their ecosystems. Second, many Alaska Native communities along the coast are dependent on these seals, not only for nutrition but also for cultural sustenance. 

The bigger communities have a fairly broad selection of grocery store foods, but they’re expensive, and a lot of people can’t afford them. In a lot of the smaller communities, people don’t have that option. Beyond that, there are a lot of health and cultural benefits to Alaska Native people from eating their traditional foods.

How do ice seals rely on sea ice?

Ice seals depend mostly on the seasonal ice that forms new every year during winter. Bearded seals need ice in proximity to shallow-water feeding habitat. And ringed seals rear their pups in snow caves on the ice—they have a cave with a hole through the ice into the water so they can come and go. The projection is that this seasonal ice that seals depend on will continue, on average, to decline as temperatures rise
in the Arctic. 


10 Facts about Ringed and Bearded Seals

1. Seals are related taxonomically to sea lions, walruses and otters yet they are also relatives of bears, dogs, raccoons, and weasels.

2. The official term for the way ringed and bearded seals move on land with a vertical, undulating motion is galluphing.

3.Bearded seals are extremely vocal and males' songs can be heard for up to 12 miles.

4. Ringed seal pups are normally born in snow caves.

5. Bearded seals are solitary animals. Individual seals rest on single ice floes and face the water for an easy escape from predators.

6. Ringed and bearded seals are known as phocid seals, or more commonly, earless or true seals.

7.  Despite the name earless seals, ringed and bearded seals have ears—they are just not visible from the outside.

8. Phocid seals usually have thin fur that doesn’t trap air, so they rely on blubber for insulation from the cold Arctic waters.

9. Ringed seals are the smallest seals in the Arctic. 

10. Ringed seals have very strong claws. They use their claws to maintain breathing holes in ice that can be as thick as six feet.