‘Pretty unbelievable,’ says Kotlik hunter who helped document recent spike in seal deaths

A hunter from Kotlik counted 18 dead seals along 11 miles of shore, north of Kotlik. Photo from May 7, 2019 (Photo courtesy Harold Okitkun)

A hunter who helped confirm the unusually high number of dead ice seals in the Bering Sea region says he’s never seen anything like it near his village.

Harold Okitkun, a hunter from the southwestern village of Kotlik says the tribal council was concerned after they heard reports of dead seals and had him go out to document the deaths. He’s the environmental director for the tribal council.

“Let’s say about 16 miles north of Kotlik, that’s when we started seeing the dead seals along the beach,” he said.

Yesterday, NOAA Fisheries announced they’d heard reports of at least 60 dead seals in different places along the coast of the Bering and Chukchi seas.

Okitkun counted 18 dead seals — a number he says he’s never seen or heard of other people seeing in Kotlik.

“It’s pretty unbelievable to see a whole bunch of dead seals on the beach where usually we’d only like find one or two carcasses,” he said.

Okitkun added that a lot of the seals looked skinny.

He says the deaths are worrying given how much people in Kotlik rely on seals and other marine species for food.

“A lot of people use parts of the seal every day in what we eat, so it really hurts to see dead animals washing up and wondering what’s going on with our oceans,” he said.

NOAA Fisheries is aware of sightings in the area including Kotzebue, St. Lawrence Island, Kivalina and Point Hope.

The agency says they don’t know yet what’s causing the deaths, and anything from lack of sea ice to harmful algal blooms could be a factor. They are currently mobilizing a team to collect samples to get more information.

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