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Largest ice-seal count ever about to begin in Arctic

Alex DeMarban

An international count to estimate the number of ice seals in the Bering Sea region begins this week, with researchers from Russia and the US planning to fly 30,000 square miles and use thermal imagery to pinpoint warm seals on the ice pack.    

Digital photos will be used to learn what types of ice seals -- ribbon, spotted, bearded or ringed -- are hauling out and where they’re doing so.

Surveying will last until May, and will be the first comprehensive estimate of seal abundance in the region, said a statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The count comes at a critical time for the region's seals. NOAA is considering listing the seals under the Endangered Species Act, and has proposed, though not finalized, a decision to list the bearded seals as threatened.

Large numbers of ringed seals -- and a few of the other ice seals -- have been killed or hurt by a mystery disease that has stumped scientists for months. Also, the loss of sea-ice habitat due to climate change may present new conservation challenges.

Survey flights will take off from Nome, Bethel, Dillingham and St. Paul in Western Alaska. Spring offers the best counting conditions because seals are breeding, molting and bearing pups on the ice, spending less time under water and increasing their visibility.

Thermal sensors will pinpoint the seals by their warmth, and high-resolution digital will provide images that can be analyzed in the lab afterwards to identify species.

Surveyors will communicate with subsistence hunters to avoid disrupting hunting activity, especially bowhead whaling on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait, the release said.

For more information go to: http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/nmml/polar/