Characteristics of ringed seal Pusa hispida (‘natchiq’) denning habitat in Kotzebue Sound, Alaska, during a year of limited sea ice and snow

Lindsay, Jessica M.; Hauser, Donna D. W.; Mahoney, Andrew R.; Laidre, Kristin L.; Goodwin, John; Harris, Cyrus; Schaeffer, Robert J.; Schaeffer Sr., Roswell; Whiting, Alex V.; Boveng, Peter L.; Laxague, Nathan J. M.; Betcher, Sarah; Subramaniam, Ajit; Witte, Carson Riggs; Zappa, Christopher J.

Sea ice and snow are essential to Arctic ecosystems, playing key roles in the lives of Arctic marine mammals and the Indigenous Peoples who rely on them. Ringed seals Pusa hispida (‘natchiq’ in Iñupiaq) use snow-covered dens on sea ice for pupping, but quantitative information on denning habitat requirements is limited, and it is unknown how changes in snow depth and sea-ice extent will impact ringed seals. Here, an Indigenous Elder Advisory used knowledge co-production to quantify fine-scale ringed seal habitat selection patterns in Kotzebue Sound, Alaska (USA), during a year of unprecedentedly limited snow and sea-ice availability. Together, we conducted unoccupied aerial vehicle-based surveys during spring 2019 and related seal counts to survey date, bathymetry, and novel proxies for snow depth and surface roughness that we derived from Landsat 8 surface reflectance and validated with on-ice measurements. Generalized additive models showed that counts of seal groups (all age classes) and pups were associated with later survey dates, deeper water, and habitat with bright Landsat 8 pixel values and intermediate pixel variability, which in turn were correlated with deep snow and surface roughness. We observed shallow snow depths, early sea-ice breakup, and high seal densities consistent with the extreme lack of ice available in 2019. Indigenous Knowledge, intentionally woven with scientific data, provided novel and more nuanced understandings of snow and sea-ice conditions for seals. Our results may give a glimpse at future ringed seal habitat and selection in a warming Arctic.

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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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