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The harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) plays a central role in the diet and culture of native Alaskan communities. Not only are seals important to Alaskan people but they are also important as predator and prey animals, and they live in a nearly unbroken sweep of coast from Dixon Entrance south of Juneau to Kuskokwim Bay in the Bering Sea.
But since the 1970s, the Alaskan harbor seal population—divided into three "stocks" for wildlife management purposes—has declined precipitously. West of the Gulf of Alaska, populations have dropped 50 to 90 percent, but the decrease is erratic; populations are relatively stable in the southeast. The causes of the decline are unknown—ideas include predation or competition from sea lions or sharks, resource competition from recently returned humpback whales, pollution, and rising temperatures.
In 2005, in response to a request by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Southwest Fisheries Science Center and the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission submitted the report The Analysis of Population Genetic Structure in Alaskan Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina) as a Framework for the Identification of Management Stocks, by O'Corry-Crowe and colleagues. AIBS SPARS (Scientific Peer Advisory and Review Services) directed its peer review.
The panel reviewed samples of 881 harbor seals from 180 sites, evaluating population subdivisions and seal dispersal patterns using mitochondrial DNA. The data indicated that the three stock units the state uses to manage marine mammal populations inappropriately group together up to 12 smaller, genetically distinct populations. The panel concluded that this approach risks the extirpation of the smaller subgroups, reducing the genetic diversity and variation among species that allows populations to adapt to environmental changes, resist certain diseases, and avoid inbreeding.
The O'Corry-Crowe report also suggested that the spatially erratic nature of the drops in harbor seal population actually reflect unrecognized subpopulation diversity. The report stated that the population declines were occurring "on similar spatial scales to the genetic findings presented," and that declines did not correspond "to currently recognized stock structure."
After the two-day review in Juneau, the three on-site SPARS peer reviewers agreed with the investigators' conclusions generally, but recognized that sample coverage in data collection had been limited. It is tremendously difficult and expensive to sample or count harbor seals: They are difficult to identify in the water, where they spend most of their time.
Because it's so hard to monitor harbor seals, researchers recognized that identification of meaningful management stocks should incorporate traditional Alaskan ecological knowledge. In fact, scientists monitoring Alaska wildlife routinely collaborate with native hunters. Since 1997, indigenous hunters, the only group legally allowed to hunt harbor seals, have provided the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission with biosamples of their kills. Not only do native hunters work with scientists to collect tangible biological samples but because a subsistence lifestyle requires exceptional skill and traditional knowledge of resources and the environment, native hunters are also a valuable resource for qualitative information that guides scientific inquiry.
Original articles in English
Spanish translation of a previously posted article
Public Policy Report for 6 July 2010
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