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Illness plaguing seals and walruses brings disease hunters to Alaska

Jill Burke
A walrus with skin lesions rests on a barrier island beach near Point Lay, Alaska.
Photo courtesy USGS
An ill walrus lies on a barrier island beach near Point Lay, Alaska.
Photo courtesy USGS
A walrus with skin lesions rests on a barrier island near Point Lay, Alaska.
Photo courtesy USGS
A walrus with skin lesions rests on a barrier island near Point Lay.
Photo courtesy USGS
An ill walrus on a barrier island beach near Point Lay.
Photo courtesy USGS

Although the skin ailments that appear to be affecting seals and walruses in Alaska have a generic name -- ulceratitive dermatitus disease syndrome -- there are many unanswered questions about the illnesses. Scientists and hunters here and in Russia want to better understand what's causing the sicknesses and how concerned about them they should be.

For example, while skin ulcers and other conditions -- hair loss, lethargy, oozing sores, bloody mucous, congested lungs -- are affecting seals and walruses, it's not known if the two species are suffering from the same sickness. And although much studying has been done to determine whether it's the result of a virus or radiation, and no tests have linked these origins to the illness, it's not yet known what the root cause is. Toxins and environmental factors, like harmful algae blooms and thermal burns, are under consideration. As is whether allergy, hormone or nutritional problems might play a role.

As walruses prepare their annual return to the coastlines of the Bering and Chukchi seas, researchers and village residents hope to present a unified effort on the front lines for gathering more information, and consistently, so that what they observe can be placed into better context. At a joint U.S.- Russian workshop held this week in Anchorage by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wildlife Conservation Society, stakeholders developed a plan for documenting what they find in the season ahead.

"Since we don't know much about this disease ... any good observations will be helpful," said Raphaela Stimmelmayr, a workshop presenter who works for the North Slope Borough's Department of Wildlife Management.

What is known about the disease is that it appears to predominantly affect calves and sub-adult walruses. Because some healthy walruses appear to have healed sores, it's thought the disease may not necessarily be fatal. Some with sores are very ill, other's aren't. And while it's unknown if the illness can be transferred between species, including to humans, there's no proof that it has or will be able to make that leap. Polar bears, sled dogs and hunters that have eaten affected mammals haven't shown signs of illness, nor have the research teams that have been in close proximity to them, Stimmelmayr said. It's also not known if similar skin conditions detected by Russian hunters and scientists stem from the same unknown illness.

To get at the answers, teams from both nations hope to spend 2012 collecting uniform data sets: when and where were the sick animals observed? Is the whole body or only part of the body affected? What's the tusk size? And more.

Russian members of the meeting expressed frustration that their government hasn't backed the inquiry the same way the U.S. government has, and urged the U.S. contingent to try to apply pressure with the Interior Department to in turn pressure its Russian counterpart to do more. One example of perceived lax assistance from Russia's government? A traditional hunter reported that Russians had to borrow fliers from Barrow to learn about the illness, then translate and circulate them in order to educate fellow villagers about the sickness.

"We are doing something that our government should be doing," said Eduard Zdor, representing the Association of Traditional Marine Mammal Hunters in Anadyr.

Regardless, the quest is on to gather more evidence to help find new clues and formulate additional theories about what's causing some walruses to develop skin lesions.

"We're struggling with putting this in perspective," said Anthony Fishcbach, who is with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Fischbach likened the hunt to being at a Green Bay Packers football game. With 50,000 people in the stands, some are bound to be sick. The challenge now is to figure out how worried we should be about what looks like a new illness but appears to be affecting a relatively low number of walruses.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com