Sick Alaska seals will be tested for Japanese radiation

MYSTERY: Dozens found dead; scientist doubts link to damaged nuclear plant.

Associated PressJanuary 3, 2012 

A ringed seal with sores around its eyes, near Barrow.


Tissue samples from Alaska's sickened ringed seals will be analyzed for evidence of radiation but the scientist preparing to do so says he doubts there's a connection to the Japanese nuclear plant damaged by a tsunami last year.

"My gut feeling is that there's nothing there, that the answer lies in something else that's in the sea," said John Kelly, a professor emeritus of chemical oceanography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The tsunami damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant on March 11. In July, sick and dead ringed seals started showing up on the Beaufort Sea coast near Barrow with lesions on hind flippers and inside their mouths. Stricken live seals were lethargic, allowing people to approach. Necropsies found fluid in lungs, white spots on livers and abnormal growth in brains.

Ringed seals are the smallest of Alaska's ice seals and are the main prey of polar bears. They give birth on ice and they are under consideration to be listed as a threatened species because of projected loss of snow cover and sea ice from climate warming.

The National Marine Fisheries Service last month has confirmed more than 60 dead seals and 75 diseased seals in Alaska waters and outbreaks have been reported in Russia and Canada. Scientists have also seen symptoms but no deaths in Pacific walrus.

The cause remains a mystery. NMFS officials said last month scientists are looking for immune system diseases, fungi, man-made and bio-toxins, radiation exposure, contaminants and stressors related to sea ice change. The agency last month declared the deaths an "unusual mortality event," giving researchers access to more money and expertise to find out what is happening to the animals.

Kelly said Tuesday by phone that he had received calls from local officials in Barrow and Nome wondering if there was a connection to Fukushima. It's more likely that the radiation pollution dispersed in the sea, he said.

"The problem is, you never can tell," he said. "There may be some surprises."

The university, he said, has monitored radiation in association with the Environmental Protection Agency and has seen nothing connected to the disaster.

The university only recently received tissue samples from seals and it will take a few weeks to prepare for an analysis in the university's gamma ray spectroscopy laboratory, built through a U.S. Department of Energy project.

Kelly said the widespread presence of the seal and walrus problem indicates to him that the answer lies in something else in the northern waters.

As for other effects from the Japanese nuclear plant, Kelly said, he has not been contacted to test for radiation on debris that's expected to show up on the shore of Alaska and the West Coast but it should be tested.

"We strongly feel that should be done," he said.

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