The goal of the U.S.-Russia Collaborative Ice Seal Survey is "to provide the first comprehensive estimates of abundance for ice-associated seals," according to the U.S. agency behind the effort.
There are four seal species found in the Bering Sea -- the ribbon, spotted, bearded, and ringed seals -- and all are heavily dependent on dwindling Arctic ice for their well-being.
So in addition to what the combined thermal imaging and high-resolution photos might say about the species themselves, their health and numbers could also say something about underlying climate and other environmental issues.
Says the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, which does field work for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
It's unclear how Russian authorities plan to use the data.
Not so for their U.S. counterparts, AP says:
The agency is reviewing a third ice-dependent species, the ribbon seal, and will count spotted seals, a species it rejected for listing three years ago.
Historically, the Bering Sea provided one of the most spectacular manmade extinctions in history in the form of the Steller's sea cow. That fat, slow-moving, and apparently trusting plant-eater was wiped out within a few decades of its discovery by European hunters.
But the Bering Sea has also been the backdrop for ground-breaking cooperation on marine mammals. A little more than a century ago, that sea was the subject of a four-party treaty between the United Kingdom, Japan, Russia, and the United States to ban the hunting of seals on the open sea. Dubbed the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911, that agreement led to other ecological successes.
The 1911 deal, the NOAA notes:
This new survey, which gets airborne this week, should include about 11,000 nautical miles and another 19,000 nautical miles of flightpath over Russian and U.S. waters, respectively.