Distribution, abundance and biology of ringed seals (Phoca hispida): an overview
The ringed seal (Phoca hispida) has a circumpolar Arctic distribution. Because of its great importance to northern communities and its role as the primary food of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) the ringed seal has been studied extensively in Canada, Alaska, Russia, Svalbard and Greenland as well as in the Baltic Sea and Karelian lakes. No clear-cut boundaries are known to separate ringed seal stocks in marine waters. Adult seals are thought to be relatively sedentary, but sub-adults sometimes disperse over long distances. Stable ice with good snow cover is considered the most productive habitat although production in pack ice has been little studied. Populations appear to be structured so that immature animals and young adults are consigned to sub-optimal habitat during the spring pupping and breeding season. Annual production in ringed seal populations, defined as the
pup percentage in the total population after the late winter pupping season, is probably in the order of 18-24%. Most estimates of maximum sustainable yield are in the order of 7%.
The world population of ringed seals is at least a few million. Methods of abundance estimation have included aerial surveys, dog searches and remote sensing of lairs and breathing holes, acoustic monitoring, correlation analysis by reference to sizes of polar bear populations, and inference from estimated energy requirements of bear populations. Aerial strip survey has been the method of choice for estimating seal densities over large areas. Adjustment factors to account for seals not hauled out at the time of the survey, for seals that dove ahead of the aircraft, and for seals on the ice within the surveyed strip but not detected by the observers, are required for estimates of absolute abundance.
Male and female ringed seals are sexually mature by 5-7 years of age (earlier at Svalbard). Pupping usually occurs in March or early April and is followed by 5-7 weeks of lactation. Breeding takes place in mid to late May, and implantation is delayed for about 3 months. In at least some parts of their range, ringed seals feed mainly on schooling gadids from late autumn through early spring and
on benthic crustaceans and polar cod (Boreogadus saida) from late spring through summer. Little feeding is done during the moult, which takes place in late spring and early summer. Pelagic crustaceans offshore and mysids inshore become important prey in late summer and early autumn in some areas. Ringed seals have several natural predators, the most important of which is the polar bear in most arctic regions. Arctic foxes (Alopex lagopus) kill a large percentage of pups in some
From a conservation perspective, the ringed seal appears to be secure. Levels of exploitation of arctic populations have usually been considered sustainable, except in the Okhotsk Sea. Large fluctuations in production of ringed seals in the Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf are thought to be driven by natural variability in environmental conditions. While concern has been expressed about the
potential impacts of industrial activity and pollution on ringed seals, such impacts have been documented only in limited areas. Because of their ubiquitous occurrence and availability for sampling, ringed seals are good subjects for monitoring contaminant trends in Arctic marine food chains.
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