Lacking sea ice, seal pups bask on Nome beaches

NOME — An early disappearance of sea ice after a warm winter off Nome and other western Alaska communities has prompted an uptick in seal pups coming ashore.

More than 20 pups have been spotted on Nome beaches this year, KNOM-radio reported Tuesday. Other molting pups have been seen at Wales, Teller and Shaktoolik.

Residents expected more seals with the early departure of ice, and there's been a "little flurry" with a few more pups than normal, said Gay Sheffield, marine advisory program agent in Nome for the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"Animals are just figuring out what do to," she said.

Most of the sightings have been ringed or spotted seals, she said.

Seal pups are born covered with lanugo, a white, wooly coat. They leave the water to get into sun as fur grows in. With less sea ice, some choose to come ashore.

"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 Brandon Ahmasuk, subsistence program director at Kawerak Inc., the Alaska Native regional nonprofit corporation. "That's just the nature of the animal. Unfortunately for the seals, this year, we had an early spring and the ice took off."

The seals are exhibiting natural behavior, Sheffield said. Wildlife officials don't want people feeding them or trying to put them back into the ocean, she said, and the young seals have been left alone to molt.

"People gave them space to do it," she said.

Sheffield and Ahmasuk are documenting reported pups for signs of disease. All have been reported healthy.

Four types of ice-dependent seals — bearded, ringed, spotted and ribbon seals — are found in the Bering Strait region. All are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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