Alaska’s largest lake, Lake Iliamna, in addition to producing more wild sockeye salmon than any other lake on earth and providing refuge for Alaska’s most famous sea monster, supports a rare population of freshwater seals. Little known to most Alaskans the seal population in Lake Iliamna is another unique fact about our state – it has is the only freshwater seal population in the United States, and one of only five known in the world.
Most of the major haul-outs for the Lake Iliamna seals are found in an archipelago of islands in the northeast corner of the lake. The archipelago consists of three large islands and a galaxy of nearly 200 hundred smaller satellite islands and rocky outcrops. All of these islands, about 14,000 acres in total, are privately owned by two village corporations formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
The Native people of Bristol Bay have known about the seals in Lake Iliamna likely for millennia and have harvested them for food. Now, the two village corporations that own most of the islands used by the seals are combining efforts with two conservation organizations to protect the seals forever.
Pedro Bay Village Corporation and Iliamna Village Corporation have agreed to convey conservation easements over the islands each corporation owns in favor of protecting them for the seals. Under the easements the corporations give up the right to develop on the islands, but retain all the other rights of private ownership. The easements will be held and enforced by the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust.
A conservation easement is a voluntary restriction on land development allowed under Alaska law. The holder of the easement is usually an organization like a non-profit land trust or an agency of a government with a conservation mission that is willing to enforce the conservation terms of the easement. In most cases the conservation easement is forever and binds all future owners of the land subject to its terms.
The Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust is one of six non-profit land trusts that provide a conservation service to Alaskans. Each land trust has a different focal region. Land Trusts work with private landowners to develop conservation outcomes that achieve significant benefits for the public, like wildlife protection or the preservation of farmland and open spaces, while providing a sensible financial return for landowners. Most land trusts are small with a limited support base and often combine efforts with nationally based conservation organizations to put together the financial packages necessary to achieve large-scale conservation. The most supportive national organization for land trusts in Alaska has been The Conservation Fund. The Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust and The Conservation Fund are now working together to preserve Lake Iliamna seal habitat. Both organizations combined efforts in 2008 to acquire a conservation easement to protect 21,000 acres in Alaska’s Wood-Tikchik State Park.
There are five lakes in the northern hemisphere where freshwater seal populations can regularly be found: Lake Baikal and Lake Lagoda in Russia, Lake Saimaa in Finland, Lac de Loups, Quebec, Canada, and Iliamna Lake in Alaska. The Baikal, Lagoda, and Saimaa Lake seals are all closely related to ringed seals, while the Lac de Loup seals are recognized as a subspecies of harbor seals.
According to recent collaborative research undertaken by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of Alaska, Bristol Bay Native Association, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Newhalen Tribal Council the Lake Iliamna seals are a small breeding colony of harbor seals with a population range between 150 and 350 individuals. Although Lake Iliamna is connected by the Kvichak River to salt water in Bristol Bay, evidence suggests the seals that frequent the islands that will be protected by the conservation easement are year round residents. Whether the seals in Lake Iliamna represent a distinct genetic group of harbor seals is a question research has yet to answer. Nevertheless, it does appear that many of the seals in Lake Iliamna have become quite comfortable in the upper part of the lake and show no urgent desire to live among their saltwater cousins.
Although the Native residents of the communities around Lake Iliamna have never excessively harvested the seals, they explain that every year for as long as anyone can remember and as long back as their ancestors could remember, the people of Iliamna Lake have hunted seals for supplemental meat and for seal oil. Seal oil is coveted as a nutritious condiment for dipping salmon strips, fish eggs, and moose or caribou dry meat. The conservation easement granted by Iliamna Village Corporation and Pedro Bay Village Corporation to the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, in additions to preserving seals, also preserves the rights of the shareholders of each corporation to continued access to the islands for the subsistence taking of seals.
The conservation easement will also be a bonus for the subsistence, recreational and commercial fishermen who depend upon the continued abundance of sockeye salmon generated by Lake Iliamna’s ecosystem. The islands to be protected by the easement also provide spawning grounds for one of the four distinct genetic groups of sockeye identified through DNA analysis that depend upon the waters of Lake Iliamna.
The success of the conservation initiative to protect the Lake Iliamna seals still depends upon some additional funding. Over the next year the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust and The Conservation Fund will be combining their efforts to secure the necessary support.