• Investigations of health status and body condition of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) in the Gulf of Alaska

      Fadely, Brian Scott; Castellini, Michael A. (1997)
      Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) declines during the past 20 years in the Kodiak Island and Prince William Sound regions contrast with stable or slightly increasing populations in southeastern areas of Alaska. Aspects of health status and body condition were investigated to test the hypothesis that these declines were driven by nutritional limitation, and to determine whether recent differential population trajectories among Kodiak Island, Prince William Sound, and southeast Alaska could have health-related components. For comparisons between 1992-96, three aspects of health status were examined; blood chemistry, blubber distribution and quantity; and blubber quality. Clinical ranges of plasma chemistries and hematologies were established for free-ranging seals in the Gulf of Alaska. Significant handling, individual, and seasonal effects were found on many blood parameters that could bias interannual and interregional comparisons if not incorporated in models. Based on statistical modeling, some seals showed more clinically aberrant values than expected by chance, but these were not clumped among regions or years. Differences existed in interannual blood chemistry and hematology patterns between juveniles and adults. Likewise, there were regional differences in blood chemistries of unknown significance. Morphometric indices were poor indicators of condition defined as size-at-age or blubber content. This was related to patterns of blubber distribution and variability, which differed between males and females. Blubber quality, measured as lipid content, did not substantially vary seasonally or between geographic regions, but blubber from Prince William Sound was less hydrated than blubber from non-declining areas. There were no detectable differences in body condition of seals from the Gulf of Alaska sampled during 1963/64 (pre-decline), 1976-78 (during decline) and 1995-96. However, sample sizes were small and patchily distributed throughout locations and years. Thus, the likelihood of detecting body condition changes in response to environmental conditions was poor. Body condition was not substantially different among seals from Prince William Sound, Kodiak Island and southeast Alaska measured during 1993-96. However, interannual blood chemistry and body condition patterns were evident among Prince William Sound seals that may have been associated with environmental conditions.