More research is needed on harbor seals in Alaska, including knowledge from Native subsistence hunters and studies of the effects of ships, according to a new management plan.
Harbor seals are "an integral part of our culture," said Yakutat hunter Raymond Sensmeier.
"It's one of our basic foods that we use all the time. I don't know what we would do without that because it's essential to our ceremonies, especially the memorial potlatch, and our subsistence," he said.
Biologists roughly estimate there are at least 76,000 harbor seals, sometimes called hair seals, in Alaska. But their numbers have declined dramatically in some places, possibly because less food was available, scientists say.
The number of harbor seals is down 85 percent in the Gulf of Alaska since the mid-1970s, and by half in Prince William Sound since the mid-1980s, although those populations may be gradually increasing.
The number of harbor seals in Southeast, where most of the subsistence hunt occurs, wasn't depleted and seems to be going up. But the increase is questionable because of declines in Glacier Bay, said Brendan Kelly, an associate professor of marine biology at the University of Alaska in Juneau..he plan, released this month, is the first annual "action plan" under a 1999 co-management agreement between the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission.
"It's actively seeking input from Native elders and hunters with respect to their knowledge of harbor seals," said Kaja Brix, the harbor seal program manager for the fisheries service in Alaska. "Should we undertake any specific kind of management measures, it gives a voice to Alaska Natives in designing those management measures."
Natives are allowed to hunt seals for food or to make crafts and clothing, under an exemption of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. Alaska Natives take about 2,600 harbor seals a year, including 1,600 in Southeast.
The plan doesn't recommend any changes in subsistence harvests, which have been fairly steady in the 1990s. The seals are not listed as depleted, threatened or endangered under federal laws. Such a listing would allow federal regulation of subsistence hunts.
The action plan is also the first such plan under 1994 amendments to the marine mammal act that provided for co-management between federal agencies and Natives, Brix said.
"It's all aimed toward making sure we provide adequate conservation of harbor seals," she said. "We are concerned about the decline."
Natives are the original stewards of this country, said Harold Martin of Juneau, chairman of the Native commission, which represents coastal communities that hunt seals.
"We're not going to exploit or deplete anything we're dependent on to sustain our spiritual well-being," Martin said.
The harbor seal population is hard to count accurately because the animals are spread over a large area and spend a lot of time underwater. Knowing how many seals there are, and whether numbers are rising or falling in distinct population groups, is essential to managing human harvests of them. The plan encourages scientists to talk to Native hunters.
"They take note of the changes in the environment, the population, whatever affects the population of the seal," Martin said of hunters. "They watch whether the herring and salmon are coming in there, which the seals are dependent on. And they can relate these things to scientists."
The plan also urges the continued funding of existing involvement of Natives in harbor seal science. The Native commission and the state Department of Fish and Game count subsistence harvests and organize Native hunters to collect tissue samples for research. A Youth Area Watch also pairs young people with experienced hunters, who show them how to hunt and take those samples.
Experienced hunters can teach young hunters where, when and how to hunt, Martin said. Youngsters need to know such things as to shoot the seals after the animals have taken a deep breath, so the carcasses will float and not sink and be wasted.
The plan also calls for studies of the effects of cruise ships and other vessels on harbor seals.
Native hunters from Yakutat are concerned that ships entering glacial fjords during the seals' pupping season may cause them to abandon the ice where they rest and feed, separating mothers and pups. They also worry that discharges of wastewater could affect the animals' health.
Yakutat hunter Sensmeier, an alternate to the Native harbor seal commission, said he counted five seals and a pup in three days in May in Disenchantment Bay near Yakutat. There should have been hundreds, he said.
Harbor seals have declined by up to half in Glacier Bay since 1992, said Beth Mathews, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Alaska Southeast.
Researchers have observed that all types of vessels, including kayaks, can disturb seals. But she said the availability of food and increased predation are more likely factors in the declines. And it's not clear yet whether the seals have died or just moved elsewhere, Mathews said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.