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Integrating Local Traditional Knowledge and Subsistence Use Patterns with Aerial Surveys to Improve Scientific and Local Understanding of the Iliamna Lake Seals

June 01, 2016

This project was designed to gather and synthesize information about the ecology of the seals within Iliamna Lake through a combination of aerial surveys, biological sampling, and ethnographic research.

Findings from all research modalities were integrated into project findings. We found broad agreement about seal ecology across methodological approaches, with the combined findings stronger than those provided by any single source.

For example, while there was close agreement on the abundance of seals in the lake during midsummer from aerial surveys and interviews, the ethnographic interviews provided more nuanced insight into the seasonal movements and behaviors of the seals than would have been possible to discern from aerial surveys alone. Indeed, reports that seals utilize subnivean spaces as haul outs during the time when the lake is covered by ice might account for the very low abundance of seals observed during wintertime aerial surveys.

Likewise, insight into the stock of origin and population discreetness provided by genetic analysis illuminates the local understanding of population isolation. This understanding differed among lake communities. Similarly, analysis of tissue samples confirmed local reports of seasonal shifts in the seal population's diet and the importance of salmon to that diet.

The cultural importance of seals to the residents of the lake communities was evident in both subsistence surveys and interviews that detailed hunting techniques and traditional practices to manage harvest activities and ensure the continued health of the population. During outreach visits to participating communities, residences expressed concern about future management of the seal population in the lake, and advocated for additional research.


Jennifer M. Burns, James M. Van Lanen, David Withrow, Davin Holen, Tatiana Askoak, Helen Aderman, Greg O'Corey-Crowe, Garrett Zimpelman, and Bronwyn Jones. Published under the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence, 2016. Technical paper no. 416.

Last updated by Alaska Regional Office on 05/20/2022

Harbor Seal Research