Thursday, June 17, 2010

Northern Fur Seal

Northern Fur Seals, hauled out on a beach along the shore of St. Paul Island, Alaska. One of the real thrills of visiting this remote place was the chance to see these massive seals. About 70% of the global population breeds on St. Paul - perhaps 500,000 seals - so they aren't hard to find. The bulls come ashore first, and establish territories. Later, the cows arrive and a real stud bull might have up to 40 in his territory.

A gargantuan male in repose. Inelegant and short of social graces, the bulls emit loud bellows that can be heard for at least 1/3 mile, and often spar with their neighbors. A real big boy might be over 7 feet long and weigh 600 pounds. They allegedly have the second densest fur of any mammal, bested only by the Sea Otter. I believe it, having now seen them in their element. Fur Seals spend up to 10 months at sea, and a frigid sea it is.

It must feel good to hit the beach once in a while.

Northern Fur Seals are the reason that the Pribilof Islands are now inhabited. The Russians discovered seals here in the 1700's, and essentially enslaved Aleuts that were living in the Aleutian chain and brought them to St. Paul and St. George islands. There, the native peoples were forced to harvest and prepare seals for the Russians, who made enormous profits from the animals.

Northern Fur Seals may look cute, but don't be deceived. They are ill-tempered and quite capable of putting the hurt on anyone foolish enough to venture too close. Amazingly, the traditional method of harvesting them is with the use of long clubs, a tactic that would require some nerve on the part of the hunter. The natives still harvest about 250 annually, all 2nd year males.

Fur Seals are declining, and birth rates have fallen to alarming levels in some recent seasons. The population drop probably has nothing to do with the limited subsistence harvesting by native peoples; rather, it speaks to overfishing of the Bering Sea by commercial fisherman, most likely.

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