The National Marine Fisheries Service is still trying to figure out what is causing marine mammals to die at high rates in Alaska.

In September, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared an unusual mortality event for three types of seals in the Arctic, including bearded, ringed and spotted seals in the Bering and Chukchi seas.

“Our normal stranding numbers for ice seals is about 20 to 30 a year,” said NOAA Marine Biologist Barbara Mahoney. “So we are dealing with more than five times the dead animals that we’ve had in the past.”

Photo Credit Ceona Koch

 

But it isn’t just seals.

In May, NOAA declared an unusual mortality event for gray whales along the West Coast from Mexico to Alaska. As of Sept. 30, the agency reported a total of 121 dead gray whales in 2019.

The majority — 47 deaths— was reported in Alaska. California and Washington each have 34 reported gray whale strandings.

Internationally, there have been 212 gray whale strandings between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Mahoney said necropsies on some of the animals have shown they were emaciated but no single answer has emerged as to why they are stranding and dying at such high rates.

“There’s a lot of changes happening in Alaska: the climate change, the water temperatures, the lack of ice, food base, prey base," she said. "So we will be looking as much as we can to see if we can come up with the causes as to why this is happening to the gray whales as well as the ice seals."

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