Federal biologists are conducting an investigation into Alaska’s ice seal habitat after close to 60 of the mammals were found dead near that state’s Western coast, according to a Wednesday report by the Associated Press (AP).
NOAA Fisheries declared the deaths to be part of an unusual mortality event that followed an abnormal molting of seals and walruses from 2011 to 2016. Government officials have been unable to identify the incident’s cause.
Close to 657 seals were impacted in that period of time, during which biologists confirmed symptoms in 233 dead and stranded seals, 179 seals killed by hunters and 245 live seals.
The seals are an important food source for Native Alaskan communities along the coast, NOAA added.
On Thursday, an environmental group sued the Trump administration failing to designate the seal’s habitat as critical. The Department of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service were named as co-defendants in the case.
Additional protections are needed for the Artic mammals, which are losing their habitat due to climate change, said Center for Biological Diversity attorney Emily Jeffers.
Ringed seals are the smallest of Alaska’s ice seals, and the only to thrive in Arctic waters that have been completely covered with ice, according to AP.