Subsistence Hunting: The Social implications of Alaska’s Mysterious Seal Illness

In 2011, more than 100 seals washed up on the shores of the Alaskan coastline. Some were dead, others moribund, and the remaining seemed relatively healthy. All suffered from hair loss and skin lesions, among other ambiguous symptoms.

Earlier this year, an additional 40 seals were discovered, all presenting the same mix of symptoms. Due to this increase in unexplainable seal illnesses and deaths, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared the findings an “unusual mortality event” (UME) among marine animals.

Around the same time, pacific walruses exhibited a similar disease with comparable symptoms, although with fewer cases and less mortality.

Although no cause has been identified, a variety of hypotheses can be dismissed.

Despite the timing and scope of the March 2011 Japanese nuclear power plant disaster, radiation exposure is not likely a cause of this UME. Testing of radionuclide exposure in both sick and healthy animals revealed normal radiation levels. 

Further, advanced molecular screening for viruses has excluded over 20 possibilities, including Herpesvirus, Papillomavirus, Foot and Mouth Disease, and Enterovirus.

Last, evidence indicates that the recently discovered flu variant that killed 162 seals on the coast of New England is completely unrelated to the Alaskan seal deaths.

With no explanation in sight, scientists, veterinarians, and pathologists continue head-scratching in bewilderment.

In search of answers, The Disease Daily talked to Dr. Brendan Kelly from the National Science Foundation who has conducted long-term research with bearded seals, a species that has been particularly affected by the ailment.

Dr. Kelly says that it is “almost surely some kind of disease, [either] fungal, viral, bacterial, but oddly [we] are not able to ascertain exactly what.”

Environmental changes are often blamed for promoting the spread and transmissibility of emerging infectious diseases to humans. Nipah virus and avian influenza are two interesting and important examples.

When asked about climate as the potential culprit for this mystery illness, Dr. Kelly replies, “you would expect more disease outbreaks because of a warming climate, but it is difficult to specifically link back [to this as a cause].” However, “it wouldn’t be inconsistent with previous findings,” and therefore should not be ruled out completely.

Presently there is no evidence that the illness can spread to humans. Yet there is some concern that it may be transmissible through the food chain, as a number of polar bears, voracious consumers of Alaskan ice seals, have exhibited similar symptoms. Some Alaskan Native subsistence hunters expressed concern about the safety of eating seal meat, since so little is understood about the cause.

A threat to traditional hunting practices

In metropolitan areas, subsistence hunting is a term rarely (or ever) heard. When so many are within biking distance of a Shaw’s, Trader Joes, and a Whole Foods, few people realize that not everyone in the United States can so easily walk into the nearest grocery store and pick up a steak for dinner.

In Alaska, where grocery prices could drive you into poverty, subsistence hunting is a means of survival.

America’s northernmost region, comprised of the Northwest Artic and North Slope Boroughs, are the most remote and sparsely populated areas in Alaska. There are few roads and most groceries are flown in by air. A gallon of milk costs $10 and the price of fuel has increased to $12 per gallon.

Within this region, the vast majority of residents live a subsistence lifestyle, depending heavily on the land and sea to sustain them. Most of the Boroughs’ residents are Inupiaq Eskimos, who grew up fishing, hunting, and harvesting.

These Native Alaskan subsistence hunters have lived in this traditional manner for generations and have cultivated a balanced relationship with nature. They take what is needed to survive, but never so much that it may harm their environment. Protecting and respecting the land, the sea, and the animals from which they live off are essential to this sustainable way of being. Life in rural Alaska embodies the foreign values and ideals that have been virtually destroyed by modern food production and consumption systems.

However, the threat of emerging infectious diseases even in the hostile conditions of the arctic may compromise this traditional way of life.

I had the privilege to interview a Kotzebue, Alaska native, Ross Schaeffer, also known as Qalayauq. Mr. Schaeffer is a respected Inupiaq hunter who has provided for his village most of his life.

Last year, when the seal illness first caught the attention of native hunters, Schaeffer came across one younger seal that had absolutely no hair and could barely move. The seal was very sick. Upon closer examination, Schaeffer saw that the animal suffered from some pulmonary disease; its lungs were filled with fluid. He also found white spots on the liver, and when he separated the blubber from the skin, Schaeffer discovered huge sores. Some were open and oozing, others had healed and left behind 2 to 3 inch scars.

Although the hunters depend quite heavily on seal meat, they do not eat any diseased animals. As a result, “I would have to hunt more,” says Schaeffer. Hunting is already a year-round commitment in rural Alaska. “We don’t hunt per season, we hunt all the time.” A decrease in seal meat might put additional pressure on subsistence hunters to pursue other species, such as beluga whales, which are endangered but also a food staple for the native Inupiaq.

Thankfully, Schaeffer has not come across any sick seals this summer, although this does not signify that the condition will not return in the coming seasons. For now though, subsistence hunters can look forward to an uncompromised supply of fresh seal meat.

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