About the Species
The bearded seal get its name from the long white whiskers on its face. These whiskers are very sensitive and are used to find food on the ocean bottom.
Bearded seals inhabit circumpolar Arctic and sub-Arctic waters that are relatively shallow (primarily less than about 1,600 feet deep) and seasonally ice-covered. In U.S. waters, they are found off the coast of Alaska over the continental shelf in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas. Because bearded seals are closely associated with sea ice, particularly pack ice, their seasonal distribution and movements are linked to seasonal changes in ice conditions. To remain associated with their preferred ice habitat, bearded seals generally move north in late spring and summer as the ice melts and retreats and then south in the fall as sea ice forms. As such, they are sensitive to changes in the environment that affect the annual timing and extent of sea ice formation and breakup.
Bearded seals, like all marine mammals, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. There are two currently recognized subspecies of the bearded seal: E. b. barbatus, often described as inhabiting the Atlantic sector, and E. b. nauticus, inhabiting the Pacific sector. The geographic distributions of these subspecies are not separated by conspicuous gaps. The Okhotsk and Beringia distinct population segments of the Pacific sector are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Because of their listed status, these distinct population segments are also designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
There is no accurate population count at this time, but it is estimated that there are probably over 500,000 bearded seals worldwide.
The Alaska stock is the only stock of bearded seals in U.S. waters.
Although subsistence harvest of bearded seals occurs in some parts of the species’ range, there is little or no evidence that these harvests currently have or are likely to pose a significant threat. While the United States does not allow commercial harvest of marine mammals, such harvests are permitted in some other portions of the species’ range; however, there is currently no significant commercial harvest of bearded seals and significant harvests seem unlikely in the foreseeable future.
- Beringia DPS
ESA Threatened - Foreign
- Okhotsk DPS
- Throughout Its Range
- Beringia DPS
- Okhotsk DPS
Bearded seals are the largest species of Arctic seal. They grow to lengths of about 7 to 8 feet and range from about 575 to 800 pounds. In some regions, females appear to be slightly larger than males. Bearded seals have generally unpatterned gray to brown coats, large bodies, and small square fore flippers. They have a short snout with thick, long white whiskers, which gives this species its "beard."
Behavior and Diet
Bearded seals primarily feed on or near the sea bottom on a variety of invertebrates (e.g., shrimps, crabs, clams, and welks) and some fish (e.g., cod and sculpin). While foraging, they typically dive to depths of less than 325 feet. They do not like deep water and prefer to forage in waters less than 650 feet deep where they can reach the ocean floor. Still, adult bearded seals have been known to dive to depths greater than 1,600 feet.
Bearded seals tend to prefer sea ice with natural openings, though they can make breathing holes in thin ice using their heads and/or claws. Sea ice provides the bearded seal and its young some protection from predators, such as polar bears, during whelping and nursing. Sea ice also provides bearded seals a haul-out platform for molting and resting. Bearded seals are solitary creatures and can be seen resting on ice floes with their heads facing downward into the water. This allows them to quickly escape into the sea if pursued by a predator. Bearded seals also have been seen sleeping vertically in open water with their heads on the water surface.
Bearded seals are extremely vocal, and males use elaborate songs to advertise breeding condition or establish aquatic territories. These vocalizations, which are individually distinct, predominantly consist of several variations of trills, moans, and groans. Some trills can be heard for up to 12 miles and can last as long as 3 minutes.
Where They Live
Bearded seals are circumpolar in their distribution, extending from the Arctic Ocean (85° north) south to Hokkaido (45° north) in the western Pacific. They generally inhabit areas of relatively shallow water (primarily less than 650 feet deep) that are at least seasonally ice-covered. Typically, these seals occupy ice habitat that is broken and drifting with natural areas of open water (e.g., leads, fractures, and polynyas), which they use for breathing and accessing water for foraging.
In U.S. waters off the coast of Alaska, bearded seals are found over the continental shelf in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas. The shallow shelf of the Bering and Chukchi Seas provides the largest continuous area of habitat for bearded seals. In late winter and early spring, bearded seals are widely but not uniformly distributed in the broken, drifting pack ice, where they tend to avoid the coasts and areas of fast ice. To remain associated with their preferred ice habitat, most adult seals in the Bering Sea are thought to move north through the Bering Strait in late spring and summer as the ice melts and retreats. They then spend the summer and early fall at the edge of the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea pack ice and at the fragmented edge of multi-year ice. Some bearded seals—mostly juveniles—remain near the coasts of the Bering and Chukchi Seas during summer and early fall, where they are often found in bays, estuaries, and river mouths. As the ice forms again in the fall and winter, most bearded seals are thought to move south with the advancing ice edge.
Lifespan & Reproduction
In general, bearded seal females reach sexual maturity at around 5 to 6 years and males at 6 to 7 years. Females give birth to a single pup while hauled out on annual pack ice, usually between mid-March and May. Pups are nursed on the ice, and by the time they are a few days old, they spend half their time in the water. Pups transition to diving and foraging while still under maternal care during a lactation period of about 24 days. Within a week of birth, pups are capable of diving to a depth of 200 feet.
Males exhibit breeding behaviors up to several weeks before females arrive at locations to give birth. Mating takes place soon after females wean their pups.
Climate Change Effects on Sea Ice
Bearded seals rely on the availability of suitable sea ice over relatively shallow waters for use as a haul-out platform for giving birth, nursing pups, molting, and resting. As such, ongoing and anticipated reductions in the extent and timing of ice cover stemming from climate change (warming) pose a significant threat to this species.
Additional Factors of Potential Concern
The continuing decline in summer sea ice in recent years has renewed interest in using the Arctic Ocean as a potential waterway for coastal, regional, and trans-Arctic marine operations, which pose varying levels of threat to bearded seals depending on the type and intensity of the shipping activity and its degree of spatial and temporal overlap with the seals. Offshore oil and gas exploration and development could also potentially impact bearded seals. The most significant risk posed by these activities is the accidental or illegal discharge of oil or other toxic substances because of their immediate and potentially long-term effects. Noise and physical disturbance of habitat associated with such activities could also directly affect bearded seals.
All bearded seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Beringia and Okhotsk distinct population segments are listed as both threatened under the Endangered Species Act and depleted under the MMPA.
Alaska Natives have a long history of self-regulation to ensure a sustainable take of marine mammals for food and handicrafts.
In 1994, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was amended to section 119, which reads, “The Secretary map enter into cooperative agreements with Alaska Native Organizations to conserve marine mammals and provide co-management of subsistence use by Alaska Natives.” These co-management agreements may be established between NOAA Fisheries or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Native Organizations, including, but not limited to, Alaska Native tribes and tribally authorized co-management bodies. Co-management promotes full and equal participation by Alaska Natives in decisions affecting the subsistence management of marine mammals (to the maximum extent allowed by law) as a tool for conserving marine mammal populations in U.S. waters in and around Alaska.
NOAA Fisheries entered into a co-management agreement with the Ice Seal Committee (PDF, 7 pages) in October 2006. The Ice Seal Committee is an Alaska Native Organization that represents ice seal subsistence users in the five regions of Alaska that harvest ice seals: Bristol Bay (Bristol Bay Native Association), Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (Association of Village Council Presidents), Bering Sea (Kawerak, Inc.), Northwest Arctic (Maniilaq Association), and the Arctic Slope (North Slope Borough). The Ice Seal Committee is dedicated to conserving ice seal populations, habitat, and hunting and to preserving native cultures and traditions. The Ice Seal Committee co-manages ice seals with NOAA Fisheries by monitoring subsistence harvest and cooperating on needed research, and education programs pertaining to ice seals.
The Ice Seal Committee adopted an Ice Seal Management Plan (PDF, 8 pages) in January 2012 that outlines the members’ management principles and goals.
Overseeing Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response
We work with volunteer networks in all coastal states to respond to marine mammal strandings. When stranded animals are found alive, NOAA Fisheries and our partners assess the animal’s health. When stranded animals are found dead, our scientists work to understand and investigate the cause of death. Although the cause often remains unknown, scientists can sometimes identify strandings due to disease, harmful algal blooms, vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, pollution exposure, and underwater noise. Some strandings can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health and welfare.
Declaring Unusual Mortality Events
To understand the health of ice seal populations, our scientists work with our stranding network partners to collect data on all marine mammal strandings and investigate unusual mortality events. Understanding and investigating marine mammal UMEs is important because they can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health and welfare.
Regulatory Actions & Documents
- Final Rule (77 FR 76739, 12/28/2012)
- Proposed rule; 6-month extension (76 FR 77465,12/13/2011)
- Notice of public hearing (76 FR 14883, 03/18/2011)
- Notice of public hearings (76 FR 9734, 02/22/2011)
- Proposed rule; extension of public comment period (76 FR 6755, 02/08/2011)
- Proposed rule; 12-month finding; Status Review (75 FR 77496, 12/10/2010)
- Notice of Initiation of Status Review (73 FR 16617, 03/28/2008)
NOAA Fisheries conducts various research activities on the biology, behavior, and ecology of the bearded seal. The results of this research are used to inform management decisions and enhance protection efforts for this species.
Our scientists collect information on bearded seals from various sources and present these data in an annual stock assessment report. Stock assessment reports contain scientific information on a species’ or stock’s geographic range, population structure, abundance, and threats, which helps resource managers assess the success of enacted management and conservation measures.
Ice Seal Surveys
Reliable distribution and abundance estimates for ice-associated seals are vital for developing sound plans for management, conservation, and responses to potential environmental impacts. NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Laboratory’s Polar Ecosystems Program designs and conducts surveys and develops data products from these surveys to address this fundamental information need. Additional information about the Polar Ecosystems Program’s research is available in recent reports and publications.
Molecular genetic techniques are being applied to a number of taxonomic, evolutionary and demographic questions in bearded, ribbon, ringed, and spotted seals, including the relationships among the different species and the population structure and dispersal patterns within each species. For example, NOAA Fisheries recently initiated a collaborative research project with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to determine whether mitochondrial DNA would be informative in resolving questions of population and stock structure in ringed, bearded and ribbon seals. Initial efforts are revealing high levels of genetic variation in all species.
We conduct several regular surveys and field projects on ice seals (bearded, ribbon, ringed, and spotted seals) in Alaskan Arctic waters. This research helps us understand the role of ice seals in the marine ecosystem and inform management decisions for the conservation of these species.
Recent Science Blogs
Biological Opinion - Office of Naval Research Arctic Research Activities 2018-2021 and Associated Proposed Issuance of an Incidental Harassment Authorization in the Beaufort Sea, Alaska
Endangered Species Act Section 7(a)(2) Biological Opinion - NMFS Consultation Number: AKR-2018-9725
Biological Opinion - Liberty Oil and Gas Development and Production Plan Activities, Beaufort Sea, Alaska
Endangered Species Act (ESA) Section 7(a)(2) Biological Opinion - NMFS Consultation Number: AKR…
Principles by which the members of the Ice Seal Committee will manage ice seals.
Biological and Conference Opinion on the Issuance of Marine Mammal Protection Act Permit No. 20466 to Alaska Department of Fish and Game for Scientific Research on Ice Seals
This document represents the NMFS opinion on the effects of these actions on the bearded seal…
Data & Maps
Separate Biological Review Teams (BRTs) were convened by NOAA Fisheries to assess the best…