Did you know there used to be resident polar bears on two small islands in the Bering Sea? Given how much we don’t know about the polar bears of the Bering Sea, the bears that used to den and spend their summers on the St. Matthew Islands are a bright spot. These islands lay at the southern-most limit of the modern “Chukchi Sea” subpopulation (see Fig. 1) and were uninhabited by people when they were discovered in the 1760s – but they were a haven for polar bears.
We have details of the polar bears that gave birth and summered there because a US government biologist (Henry Wood Elliott) and a US navy Lieutenant (Washburn Maynard) surveyed the islands in 1874. Elliott wrote both an official report and a popular magazine article (for Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization) in 1875 describing the polar bears they saw; Maynard wrote a separate report in 1876. By 1899, there were none left, victims of the relentless slaughter of polar bears everywhere in the Arctic in that era (see previous discussion here).
Figure 1. St. Matthew Island is in the Bering Sea off the west coast of Alaska at about 60°N latitude. Compare this to the southern end of James Bay, Canada (which has a stable population of polar bears) at about 53 0N and Churchill, Manitoba (the so-called “polar bear capital of the world) at 58 046’N. Maps from Wikipedia.
Figure 2. A drawing of polar bears on St. Matthew Island that accompanied the May 1, 1875 Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization article written by Henry Elliot. See here.
[UPDATE: Jan. 27, 2013: a follow-up to this post is here.]
Posted in Life History, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Bering Sea, Chukchi, commercial harvest, Elliott, Hudson Bay, Klein, onshore, Rozell, sea ice extent, St. Matthew Island, triplets
As I pointed out in Featured Quote #22 (posted on Dec. 23, 2012), bearded and ringed seals have recently joined the polar bear on the American ESA’s list of animals that are “threatened” by computer-modeled predictions of Arctic sea ice declines projected 50-100 years into the future (USFWS 2008, 2012a, 2012b).
NOAA photos of bearded seal (top) and ringed seal (bottom). The bearded seal is one of the largest Arctic ice seal while the ringed seal is the smallest. Both are eaten by polar bears, although ringed seals are consumed most often.
The decision by NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) affects the Arctic subspecies of ringed seal (Phoca hispida hispida) as well as the Okhotsk subspecies (Phoca hispida ochotensis) (in addition to several others) and thus includes all ringed seals off Alaska’s coast in the Beaufort, Chukchi and Bering Seas. The decision also affects two particular subpopulations of bearded seal (Erignatha barbatus): the “Beringia” [Bering Sea/Chukchi] subpopulation (about half of which reside in Alaskan waters), and the subpopulation that lives in the Sea of Okhotsk. (Alaska Fisheries (NOAA) Final Decision). Continue reading
Posted in Conservation Status, Sea ice habitat
Tagged advocacy, bearded seals, Bering Sea, Chukchi, Erignatha barbatus, ESA, IUCN, Phoca hispida, ringed seals, status, threatened
Sea ice development in the Bering Sea is trending higher than average again this year, even though it is early in the season. The NSIDC sea ice extent image for Dec 6 2012 below (Fig. 1) shows extensive ice development in the Bering Sea. [courtesy WUWT sea ice reference page]
“Seven of the last 10 years have produced above-average freezing in the waters west of Alaska” says Kathleen Cole of the Alaska National Weather Service (Dec. 6, 2012) – see “Featured Quote” #20 in the right column (also filed in the “Quote Archive“).
Figure 1. NSIDC sea ice extent at Dec. 6 2012.
The orange line is the median extent for this date for 1979-2000. Click to enlarge.
The NSIDC, in their report on the annual freeze-up of the Arctic (November 2012), have this to say about the ice in the Bering Sea:
“…ice extent in the Bering Sea by the end of the month was greater than average, continuing a pattern seen in recent years. Extent in the Bering Sea was at record high levels last winter.”