Is the harbor seal population rising in Bristol Bay?

Jul 12, 2017

Fisherman in Bristol Bay say the population of harbor seals in the area is growing notably larger. The observation is confirmed by aerial surveys conducted by the federal government a few years ago. 

Harbor seals are a common nuisance to commercial fisherman, as they are known to pick catch out of the nets. Bristol Bay fishermen, especially near Egegik and Ugashik, say the numbers of harbor seals have grown in recent years, which the federal government says appears to be true. KDLG’s Nick Ciolino has more:

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT: Fisherman in the Egegik district of Bristol Bay say there seem to be more seals in the area than there have been in the past.

Ricky Alto is second chief of the Egegik Tribal Council and has fished commercially in the area for more than 50 years. He says seals used to occupy only one sand bar in Egegik, and now there are three seal bars.

“There only used to be probably six (or) eight hundred in the sixties, seventies, but the elders don’t eat the seal no more. The young people don’t eat the seal no more. The elders used to eat the seal and kill them, but nobody is killing them no more; nobody is eating them no more. So it grew to about I’d say six thousand or more.”

Peter Boveng studies Alaskan marine mammals for the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says scientific data supports Alto’s claim, though the latest surveys only show data leading up to 2011. Boveng says the seal population was trending up at that time and probably still is.

“We estimate that the trend for the five years leading up to 2011 was an increase of about twelve hundred seals per year.”

In 2015, the Pilot Point Tribal Council made a request to NOAA for permission to commercially harvest seals. This would have incentivized a greater take than the allowed subsistence hunting will ever account for, but the request was denied. Julie Speegle, a spokesperson for NOAA, says there is no legal mechanism to grant this, even to tribes, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“The intention of the Marine Mammal Protection Act section 119 is for subsistence and not commercial harvest of marine mammals by Alaskan Natives.”

NOAA intends to update the count of the Bristol Bay harbor seal population sometime next year.

Contact KDLG reporter Nick Ciolino at fish@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281