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Erignathus barbatus 


Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Carnivora Phocidae

Scientific Name: Erignathus barbatus
Species Authority: (Erxleben, 1777)
Infra-specific Taxa Assessed:
Regional Assessments:
Common Name(s):
English Bearded Seal
French Phoque barbu
Spanish Foca Barbuda
Phoca barbata Erxleben, 1777
Taxonomic Notes: Rice (1998) lists two intergrading subspecies of Bearded Seals, Erignathus barbatus nauticus in the Pacific Ocean and peripheral seas and E. b. barbatus in the Atlantic Ocean and peripheral seas. The ranges of the two putative subspecies are thought to be divided near the central Canadian Arctic in the west and the Laptev Sea in the east, with the Atlantic subspecies occurring from the central Canadian Arctic east to the central Eurasian Arctic and the Pacific subspecies occurring from the Laptev Sea east to the central Canadian Arctic, including animals in the Sea of Okhotsk (Rice 1998). However, Burns (1981) noted that the boundaries between the subspecies have never been firmly established and he considered subspecific distinction to be an open question. Geographical variation does exist in the calls of Bearded Seals across their range, suggesting some population substructure (Risch et al. 2007), and recent genetics studies support the recognition of two subspecies (Davis et al. 2008).

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Least Concern ver 3.1
Year Published: 2016
Date Assessed: 2016-02-17
Assessor(s): Kovacs, K.M.
Reviewer(s): Lowry, L.
Facilitator/Compiler(s): Lowry, L., Ahonen, H., Pollock, C.M., Chiozza, F. and Battistoni, A.
Due to its large population size, broad distribution, variable feeding habits, and no evidence of a current decline, the Bearded Seal are classified as Least Concern. However, Bearded Seals are very likely going to be negatively impacted by climate change, in particular because of losses of sea ice, and they should be monitored over the coming decades and reassessed as soon as more data become available.
Previously published Red List assessments:
  • 2008 – Least Concern (LC)
  • 1996 – Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:Bearded Seals have a patchy circumpolar distribution throughout much of the Arctic and sub-Arctic, south of 85ºN. In the Pacific sector they range from the Arctic Ocean south through the East Siberian, Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering Seas (Burns 1981). They also occupy all of Hudson Bay and much of the eastern Canadian Archipelago south to southern Labrador, and both coasts of Greenland. They occur along the north shore of Iceland, within the Svalbard Archipelago, in the drifting pack ice of the Barents Sea and across much of the north coast of the Russian Federation (Kovacs 2009). Bearded Seal vagrants have been reported from many locations outside the Arctic including Portugal (van Bree 2000), the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, northern Newfoundland, and Massachusetts (Gosselin and Boily 1994) in the North Atlantic, as well as in Japan and China in the North Pacific (Rice 1998).

Bearded Seals are strongly associated with sea ice and are benthic feeders, and these two attributes explain much of their seasonal movement patterns and their general distribution. While they are not strictly migratory, Bearded Seals in the Bering-Chukchi region undergo seasonal movements linked with the advance and retreat of sea ice (Burns 1981, Cameron et al. 2010). However, in some other regions they are quite sedentary throughout the year, such as in Svalbard, Norway (Kovacs and Lydersen 2006).
Countries occurrence:
Canada; Greenland; Iceland; Norway; Russian Federation; Svalbard and Jan Mayen; United States
China; France; Germany; Japan; Netherlands; Portugal; Spain; United Kingdom
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Arctic Sea; Atlantic – northwest; Atlantic – northeast; Pacific – northwest; Pacific – northeast
Additional data:
Estimated area of occupancy (AOO) - km2:8033684Continuing decline in area of occupancy (AOO):No
Extreme fluctuations in area of occupancy (AOO):NoEstimated extent of occurrence (EOO) - km2:35302141
Continuing decline in extent of occurrence (EOO):NoExtreme fluctuations in extent of occurrence (EOO):No
Continuing decline in number of locations:No
Extreme fluctuations in the number of locations:No
Upper elevation limit (metres):3Lower depth limit (metres):480
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:Population sizes and trends are unknown for all populations of the Atlantic Bearded Seal (see Laidre et al. 2015 for a summary). An estimate for Canadian waters of 190,000 animals was suggested by Cleator (1996), based on data collected over a 35-year period, but this number is really an educated guess as opposed to an actual estimate and in any case is now dated. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada more recently assessed the status of this species in Canada as being data deficient (COSEWIC 2007). They are also listed on Greenland’s Red List as being data deficient (Boertmann 2007). There have never been any surveys for Bearded Seals in Norwegian waters (Kovacs and Lydersen 2006) or Russian territories in the Atlantic Arctic (Reijnders et al. 1993). However, recordings of their distinctive breeding calls via passive acoustic monitoring networks suggest that this species remains widespread and relatively numerous in the Atlantic Arctic (e.g., Moore et al. 2012).

Population data are also incomplete for Pacific Bearded Seals, but this subspecies has received considerably more survey effort. Cameron et al. (2010) concluded that the best estimate for the Okhotsk Sea is 95,000 based on data from 1990 (Fedoseev 2000), and that there are no useful abundance estimates for the East Siberian and Beaufort Seas. Aerial surveys in 1999-2000 estimated about 27,000 Bearded Seals in the Alaskan Chukchi Sea. In the Bering Sea, surveys having been conducted by the USA and the Soviet Union/Russia starting in the 1970s. Early efforts, which covered varying areas and used a variety of methods, suggested an abundance of 50,000-100,000 Bearded Seals in the region. More recently, Ver Hoef et al. (2014) analyzed line transect survey data collected in the Bering Sea in spring 2007 using a series of models and estimated there were 61,800 Bearded Seals (95% CI 34,900–171,600) in their study area. Because that study included about half of the available sea ice habitat, Cameron et al. (2010) considered that the total Bearded Seal population in the Bering Sea was about 125,000. It is likely that the total abundance of Pacific Bearded Seals, including the Okhotsk Sea, is at least 250,000.

The global population size of Bearded Seals is unknown. Current population trends are also unknown.
Current Population Trend:Unknown
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:

Bearded Seals are the largest northern phocid seal. Burns (1981) found that the average standard length of adults measured from the Bering/Chukchi region was 233 cm, with females slightly longer and substantially heavier than males. Maximum lengths were 233 cm for males and 243 cm for females and maximum weights were 262 kg and 360 kg. Newborn pups averaged 131 cm in length. Quakenbush et al. (2011) found an average asymptotic length of 219 cm for Bering/Chukchi samples from the 1970s, and 209 cm for samples from the 2000s. Cameron et al. (2010) report a maximum weight of 432 kg for a female collected in the Bering Sea in spring 1985. The Atlantic Bearded Seal is of similar size, and shares the slight sexual dimorphism, with females tending to be larger than males (Andersen et al. 1999, Kovacs and Lydersen 2006). Maximum mass recorded in Svalbard is for a female in spring that weighed 424 kg

In Alaskan waters, sexual maturity is reached between 3 and 6 years in females, with an average of 4 years (Quakenbush et al. 2011). Males reach sexual maturity at 6-7 years (Burns 1981). In Svalbard, females reach sexual maturity at an age of 5 years, while males are 6 years of age when they are sexually mature though it is likely some years from that point before they compete successfully to breed (Andersen et al. 1999). Final body size in Bearded Seals is reached at approximately 9-10 years (McLaren 1958). Maximum longevity is likely 25-30 years (Cameron et al. 2010).

Bearded Seal pups are normally born on pack ice or small floes of annually-formed sea ice that fracture away from shore-fast ice as it breaks up in late spring (Kovacs et al. 1996, Kovacs and Lydersen 2006). They also have been documented to use glacier ice pieces floating on the sea for birthing and nursing when forced to by the lack of availability of first-year sea ice (Lydersen et al. 2014). The large, precocial pups swim within hours of birth (Kovacs 2009). Peak birthing occurs between late March and mid-May, varying somewhat across the Bearded Seal’s range (Burns 1981, Kovacs 2009). Gjertz et al. (2000) estimated that in Svalbard pups are weaned in approximately 24 days. Nursing might be somewhat shorter for the Pacific subspecies, Burns (1981) suggested that pups are weaned at 12-18 days of age. Prior to weaning, their aquatic skills develop to the degree that they spend about half their time in the water, diving for up to 5.5 minutes to depths of up to 84 m (Lydersen et al. 1994). Mothers spend over 80% of their time in the water while caring for a dependent pup (Lydersen and Kovacs 1999); about half that time is spent away from the neonate, presumably in foraging dives. Females haul-out to nurse their pups on average three times a day. The small amount of time mothers spend out of the water when pups are young is thought to be an adaptive response to Polar Bear predation; when only the pup is on the surface, the pair is less conspicuous to hunting bears (Krafft et al. 2000). Mating takes place at the end of lactation similar to other phocid seals. Males court females and display using elaborate downward trilling vocalizations that can travel many kilometres (Cleator et al. 1989). Individual males use distinct songs, and occupy the same territories over a series of consecutive years within constraints imposed by variable ice conditions, or they show a roaming pattern (Van Parijs et al. 2001, 2003, 2004). Males exhibit aggression with each other during breeding, including bubble-blowing and physical combat so the mating system is presumably polygynous to some degree.

Bearded seals have an extended moulting period and animals can be found shedding hair from April to August, though there appears to be a peak in May/June for both subspecies (Burns 1981, Gjertz et al. 2000).  During the moult they spend much of their time hauled out and are reluctant to enter the water (Kovacs and Lydersen 2006). Bearded seals use sea ice as a haulout platform on a year-round basis whenever it is available, preferring small and medium sized floes and generally avoiding large floes (Simpkins et al. 2003). However, they will haul out on land in the summer in the absence of sea ice (e.g., Burns 1981, Merkel et al. 2013).  They are rarely found more than a body length from access to water even if hauled out on land (Kovacs 2009).

Bearded Seals naturally occur at quite low densities (Bengtson et al. 2005); they are typically solitary animals, but they do form small, loose aggregations at times (Burns 1981).

Studies conducted on Atlantic Bearded Seal lactating females and pups (Gjertz et al. 2000, Krafft et al. 2000) have shown that diving depths largely reflect local bathymetry in coastal areas.  This reflects their benthic foraging habits; Bearded Seals feed primarily on or near the bottom and most diving is to depths of less than 100 m (though dives of adults have been recorded up to 300 m and young-of-the-year have been recorded diving down to almost 500 m; Gjertz et al. 2000). They use their elaborate whiskers to search for food items on and in soft bottom substrates and have powerful suction abilities to extract prey (Marshall et al. 2006, 2008). The diet of Bearded Seals varies by age, location, and season (Lowry et al. 1980). Polar Cod (Boreogadis saida), Sculpins, Spider Crab, and Shrimps (Sabinea sptemcarinatus and Sclerocrangon boreas) are the most frequent prey items in Svalbard (Hjelset et al. 1999). However, Cod, other demersal fish, and worms are also regular components of the diet in this area. A wide variety of prey has been reported from the Okhotsk Sea, with Crabs, Shrimps, Clams, Snails, and Worms accounting for most of their diet (Burns 1981). Quakenbush et al. (2011) analyzed the frequency of occurrence of prey in 943 Bearded Seal stomachs collected from the Bering and Chukchi Seas during 1960-2009 and identified 213 different prey taxa. The most commonly eaten groups were Crabs, Shrimps, Clams, Snails, benthic and demersal fishes, and echiuroid worms. These authors found a significant increase in consumption of gadid fishes, principally Arctic Cod (Boreogadus saida) and Saffron Cod (Eleginus gracilis), from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Bearded Seals are preyed upon by Polar Bears, Killer Whales, Greenland Sharks, and Pacific Walruses (Lowry and Fay 1984, Lowry et al. 1987, Kovacs and Lydersen 2006).

Systems:Terrestrial; Marine
Continuing decline in area, extent and/or quality of habitat:Yes
Generation Length (years):13.4
Movement patterns:Not a Migrant

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade:

Indigenous peoples of the Arctic have hunted Bearded Seals for subsistence for thousands of years, a practice that continues today throughout much of the species’ range. However, levels of subsistence harvest are not well known. Subsistence harvests of Bearded Seals in Alaska were estimated to average approximately 6,800/year during 1990-1998 (Allen and Angliss 2010). Some animals are struck and lost, especially from late spring to mid summer when they are thinnest, and if those animals are accounted for the annual Alaska harvest could be as high as 10,000. An additional 1,000-2,000 may be taken by coastal hunters in Chukotka (Cameron et al. 2010). Subsistence harvest levels are not closely monitored in Canada, but Cleator (1996) estimated that roughly 2,400 Bearded Seals were taken per year. In Greenland Bearded Seals make up only 1-2% of the Seal catch (Garde 2013), with some few hundred taken annually. Bearded Seals are hunted at low levels in Svalbard currently, but during the whaling period individual boats would take hundreds. They are also harvested in the White Sea.

The former Soviet Union historically conducted ship-based commercial harvests of Bearded Seals in the North Pacific region, in the Bering, Chukchi, and Okhotsk Seas. Harvests grew from 9,000 to 13,000 for the Bering and Okhotsk seas combined during 1957-1964, and were 8,000 to 10,000 per year during 1964-1967 (Reeves et al. 1992). Ship-based harvests were suspended from 1970 to 1975, and took place at lower levels when they resumed (Kelly 1988). There is currently no significant commercial harvest of Bearded Seals in Russia.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Global climate warming is currently causing major reductions in the extent and duration of sea ice cover in the Arctic, creating a threat to many species of ice-associated marine mammals. Pinnipeds such as the Bearded Seal that are dependent on sea ice for pupping, moulting, resting, and access to foraging areas, may be especially vulnerable to such changes (Laidre et al. 2008, 2015; Kovacs 2011, 2012). In 2012, Bearded Seals were listed under the US Endangered Species Act following a detailed review of their status and threats (Cameron et al. 2010) because of the threats posed from climate change induced losses in sea ice and ocean acidification due to climate warming, as well as increasing industrial activities in a more ice-free Arctic (Federal Register 2012). Increasing development and industrialization of the Arctic may threaten Bearded Seals in several ways. Oil spills from offshore extraction and transportation could negatively affect them through direct contact with oil and damage to foraging areas and stocks of prey, particularly benthic invertebrates, that are vulnerable to oil contamination. An increase in human-created noise in the arctic environment could cause marine mammals, including Bearded Seals that are very vocal during their breeding season, to abandon areas of habitat they otherwise might use. Increased shipping will pose a greater threat of marine accidents and disturbance of marine mammals. Cameron et al. (2010) concluded that these factors could constitute low to moderate threats to Bearded Seals.

Hunting by indigenous peoples continues throughout most of the species range. There is no evidence of any impact from hunting on Bearded Seal population numbers. For example, reports from Alaska Native subsistence hunters do not give any indication that Bearded Seal numbers have declined (Quakenbush et al. 2011).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: Within the USA, the Marine Mammal Protection Act generally prohibits taking of Bearded Seals unless it is by an Alaska Native for subsistence or production of handicrafts. In 2012, Bearded Seals in the Bering-Chukchi and Okhotsk Seas were listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act (Federal Register 2012). In Canada, subsistence hunting of Bearded Seals is co-managed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and regional resource boards (Cameron et al. 2010). Licensed hunters can shoot Bearded Seals in Svalbard, outside protected areas and during open seasons, that are set in periods when Bearded Seals shot in the water are least likely to sink (Kovacs and Lydersen 2006). In Russia, the “Law of Fisheries and Preservation of Aquatic Resources” provides for subsistence harvest of Seals by aboriginal Russian peoples, and a total allowable catch is determined annually. Russia is the only nation to set a quota on the number of Bearded Seals that can be harvested, it is an “open” hunt in all other regions.

Bearded Seals are able to use glacier ice pieces that have calved into the sea as haul-out platforms, so tidal glacier fronts are increasingly important to them in areas where sea ice declines are marked (Lydersen et al. 2014). Tidal glacier fjords may represent important breeding refugias in the future as sea ice continues to decline and this habitat type should be considered for special conservation status.

Citation: Kovacs, K.M. 2016. Erignathus barbatus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T8010A45225428. . Downloaded on 30 June 2016.
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