Scientists in Alaska are investigating whether local seals are being sickened by radiation from Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared a recent rash of seal deaths to be an “unusual mortality event” on Tuesday.
More than 60 seals have died and 75 found diseased in Alaska with skin sores and patchy hair loss.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has also identified diseased and dead walruses. A similar official declaration for Pacific Walrus in Alaska is pending.
The walruses have suffered from similar symptoms, which have also included labored breathing and appearing lethargic. Scientists have yet to identify a cause for this disease, but tests have indicated that it is not a virus. Hunters, meanwhile, continue to see many healthy animals.
Despite a significant contact with seals and walruses, no humans have reported similar symptoms.
However, it is not known whether the disease can be transmitted to humans or other animals. In most cases, necropsies and lab tests have revealed skin lesions, fluid in the lungs, white spots on the liver, and abnormal growths in the brain. Some of the seals and walruses have undersized lymph nodes, possibly a sign of weakened immuned systems.
In Canada and Russia, ringed seals have been reported suffering similar symptoms. It is unknown whether they are related.
Scores of ring seals have washed up on Alaska’s Arctic coastline since July, suffering or killed by a mysterious disease marked by bleeding lesions on the hind flippers, irritated skin around the nose and eyes and patchy hair loss on the animals’ fur coats.
Biologists at first thought the seals were suffering from a virus, but they have so far been unable to identify one, and tests are now underway to find out if radiation is a factor.
“We recently received samples of seal tissue from diseased animals captured near St. Lawrence Island with a request to examine the material for radioactivity,” said John Kelley, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“There is concern expressed by some members of the local communities that there may be some relationship to the Fukushima nuclear reactor’s damage,” he said.
The results of the tests would not be available for “several weeks,” Kelley said.
Water tests have not picked up any evidence of elevated radiation in U.S. Pacific waters since the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which caused multiple fuel meltdowns at the Fukushima plant and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate the surrounding area.
Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fish and Wildlife Service have been seeking the cause of the diseased seals for weeks, but have so far found no answers.
Japanese tsunami debris washes up on U.S. West Coast nine months after disaster (and there’s 100 MILLION more tons on its way)
Large black floats are the first remnants of Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami to begin washing up on the American coastline.
The debris traveled 4,500 miles on Pacific Ocean currents, pushed by wind and water, to reach the beaches of Neah Bay in far northwestern Washington state 280 days after the Japanese disaster.
Some 100 million tons of debris — from wrecked fishing vessels to household furniture and even body parts — is bearing down on the West Coast, raising environmental fears about the impact of massive amounts of wreckage clogging beaches.
The debris is even more massive and moving much faster than originally predicted. Initial projections said 5 to 20 million tons of waste would take three years to reach American shores.
Now, scientists say, 100 million tons could be here in just one year.
One float, the size of a 55-gallon drum, was found in Washington two weeks ago, another was reportedly discovered in Vancouver, Canada.
The 9.0 magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami that struck the eastern coast of Japan March 11 killed more than 15,000 people and washed homes, boats and human lives out to sea.
Anything that floated is now riding Pacific currents. According to computer predictions from the University of Hawaii, most of it is headed for an area between southern Alaska and southern California.
The researchers in Hawaii predicted most of the debris will reach the US mainland in three years.
However, oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Jim Ingraham said some of the flotsam appears to be traveling much faster and could hit the West Coast in less than a year, the Peninsula Daily News reported.
Most debris travels at about 7 miles per day, the Seattle scientists said, but pieces can cover up to 20 miles in a day if they are big enough for the wind to push them.
The large black drums averaged about 16 miles per day to reach Neah Bay in Washington.
The University of Hawaii team also predicted the debris was about 5 to 20 million tons.
However Mr Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham say the errant Japanese flotsam could be five times that amount, about 100 million tons.
Sailors and the US Navy have spotted all manner of shards of Japanese life in the massive debris fields that are floating the currents.
In October, the crew of a Russian ship spotted televisions and refrigerators riding the current. Parts of homes, and a wrecked 20-foot fishing vessel have also been seen.
Body parts are also expected to wash up on US shores, the Daily News reported.
The two researches said beachcombers who find any debris with identifying marks – such as Japanese writing – should contact authorities so it can be returned.
Families lost everything when their homes were washed away by the giant wall of water, Mr Ebbesmeyer said. Anything they can reclaim from the sea could help them recover from the disaster.