Mention seals to most Canadians and chances are their minds will immediately jump to the variety of harp seals that are controversially hunted on the east coast.
But the lesser known ringed seals are just as important to Canada’s Arctic, and a PhD student in the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research is devoting his research to studying their behaviour and how it may be changing as a result of climate change in the north.
“They play a critical role in the ecosystem, but you don’t really hear that many people talking about them,” said Dave Yurkowski, who works in the lab of professor and Canada Research Chair Aaron Fisk. “The Arctic is one of the fastest changing ecosystems on the planet right now, so it’s important to better understand the ecology of ringed seals, and how those changes might affect their future.”
Since 2012, Yurkowski has made several trips to Resolute Bay, a tiny hamlet on Cornwallis Island in Nunavut, where he works with other scientists, as well as local hunters and trappers. They catch ringed seals in nets, attach satellite devices to them and then release them back into the sea. Those tags – worth about $4,500 each – capture a variety of data including latitude, longitude, water temperature, and dive depth and duration, all of which is transmitted to a satellite in near real-time while still glued to the fur of the animal. The tags eventually fall off during spring moulting season.
So far, he has tagged seven seals, and he collaborates with researchers in Canada, Denmark and Greenland who have tagged an additional 93, contributing to one of the largest Arctic marine mammal satellite tag databases in the world for a single species. The information from those tags has provided some remarkably insightful data, especially regarding the seals migratory patterns.
“One of the younger seals has actually travelled more than 3,000 kilometres,” he said. “They were thought to be more territorial but we are seeing some significant movements.”
Ultimately his work is all about understanding the seals’ ecology, migratory patterns and place in the ecosystem, which is critically important, given that others animals like polar bears as well as Inuit hunters have relied on them as a dietary staple for thousands of years, he said.
“They are seeing some changes, and it may vary depending on the area, but in some areas they’re saying they don’t see as many seals right now as they have in the past, and they don’t know why that is,” he said. “They don’t know if the seals are moving to other areas, or if they are actually declining. But the more research that’s done, the better overall picture we can get.”
Yurkowski will discuss his work in greater detail when he appears today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.
A ringed seal is shown here with a satellite tag attached to it.