Endangered Species Handbook

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Fur Seals

     The 18th and 19th centuries saw a massive slaughter of fur seals wherever they were found, from the Aleutian Islands to the Antarctic and shores and islands of all the major continents.  These animals are especially vulnerable when on land, breeding and having their young, as they are slow and ponderous and can easily be blocked from entering the sea and being bludgeoned.  Hundreds of thousands of fur seals lined coasts and off islands in cold water areas throughout the world.  The Northern Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus) inhabits the North Pacific from the Channel Islands off California in a large arc to the Sea of Japan (Nowak 1999).  Estimated to number 4.5 million in 1870, sealing reduced them to 200,000 by 1914 (Sparks 1992).  Pelagic sealing had a catastrophic effect on these seals; more than 1 million Northern Fur Seals, of which 60 to 80 percent were females, were taken at sea from 1868 to 1911 (Nowak 1999).  Many of the females were lactating and had left their pups on land while they foraged at sea.  Major conflicts erupted between the countries where the rookeries were located, Russia and the United States, and the two major pelagic sealing nations, Canada and Japan (Nowak 1999).  The situation was resolved when the fur seal rookeries on the Kuril, Commander and Robben Islands in the western Pacific were almost completely eliminated (Nowak 1999).
     Pelagic sealing was banned by treaty in 1911, but commercial harvests on the Northern Fur Seal's breeding islands did not stop until the 1980s, when the species became depleted.  This seal also suffers from a mortality of some 50,000 a year drowning in driftnets (Nowak 1999).  When the regulated kill in Alaska was stopped, it was expected that the species would rebound, but numbers of pups born dropped on the Pribilof Islands from 450,000 in the mid-1950s to 253,000 in 1992, and the species population there is half what it was in the 1950s (Nowak 1999).  The National Marine Fisheries Service, which has jurisdiction over marine mammals, designated it a depleted species but refused a petition to list it on the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  It is a species "undergoing its most serious crisis since the era of pelagic sealing a century ago" (Nowak 1999).  The 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists it as Vulnerable, the category below Endangered, indicating a dangerous decline.  The species spends much of the year in open sea, and there has been speculation that, in addition to losses from entanglements in fishing nets and gear, illegal killing for fur may be taking place by fishing and other vessels. 
     Three of the eight other species of fur seals are also listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.  They inhabit waters further south, from Guadalupe Island off Baja California, Mexico, to the Galapagos and Juan Fernandez Islands off South America.  All originally had limited populations in restricted distributions and were heavily hunted for their fur.  After a century of protection, they have not recovered their numbers, and were even thought extinct for a period.  The Juan Fernandez Fur Seal (Arctocephalus philippi) is native to the islands made famous by Alejandro Selkirk, upon whom the novel Robinson Crusoe was based.  Prior to any sealing, the species may have numbered 4 million; after 18th century sealers began exploiting them, they were quickly reduced to 2 to 3 million (Nowak 1999).  Up to 3.5 million were taken from 1793 to 1807, with as many as 15 ships all killing seals at the same time (Nowak 1999).  By 1824, the species was considered commercially extinct (Nowak 1999); it disappeared in 1891, considered extinct (Allen 1942).  Small numbers were discovered in 1968 near Isla Robinson Crusoe, and a census in 1983-1984 counted 6,300 fur seals throughout the islands.  Another count in 1990 estimated 12,000 Juan Fernandez Fur Seals, but there is some poaching and harassment by fishermen (Nowak 1999). 
     The Southern Fur Seal (Arctocephalus australis), native to the coast of South America, was also heavily exploited beginning in 1515 (Nowak 1999).  Not until the 1940s was the killing controlled, but even with an authorized kill of about 12,000 seals a year, the population in Uruguay fell from 252,000 to 5,000 from 1987-1991, a precipitous drop (Nowak 1999).  The species has not recovered from sealing and now numbers about 83,000 (Nowak 1999).  Although its population is below that of the Northern Fur Seal, it is not listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.  Darwin saw these seals on Chiloe Island, off southern Chile.  He described them in his notes on the epic voyage on the Beagle:  "I accompanied the Captain in a boat to the head of a deep creek.  On the way the number of seals which we saw was quite astonishing:  every bit of flat rock, and parts of the beach were covered with them.  They appeared to be of a loving disposition, and lay huddled together, fast asleep . . .”
     The smallest fur seal is the Galapagos (Arctocephalus galapagoensis), with males weighing only 64 kilograms and females weighing 27 kilograms,  (Nowak 1999).  So heavily hunted by commercial sealers in the 19th century that it was thought extinct by the early 20th century, small populations were seen in 1932 (Nowak 1999).  It has recovered to a population of 30,000 to 40,000.  Although protected by Ecuadorian law in these islands, it is attacked by feral dogs (Nowak 1999) and, in view of the oil spill that took place in early 2001, is vulnerable to that threat as well.
     The Guadalupe Fur Seal (Arctocephalus townsendi) was once found from Guadalupe Island off Mexico and along the coast of Baja California, Mexico, north to the Channel Islands, California.  Originally numbering up to 200,000 seals on Guadalupe alone, thousands more lived along the coasts (Nowak 1999).  Early in the 19th century, sealers killed the majority of the population, returning regularly to kill more seals until 1894 when no more could be found. It was twice considered extinct (1895 to 1926, 1928 to 1949) (Nowak 1999).  Rediscovered on Guadalupe Island in 1926 by two fishermen, several seals were sent to the San Diego Zoo in 1928.  After a quarrel between one of the fishermen who discovered the seals and the Director of the zoo, the former stormed off to Guadalupe Island in 1928 to kill the entire herd; he killed every seal he found and sold the skins in Panama, where he was killed in a barroom fight (Curry-Lindahl 1972).  Not until 1949 was a lone male seen on Nicolas Island in the Channel Islands off southern California; in 1954, a small colony of 14 seals was found on Guadalupe Island, hiding in caves along the shore (Curry-Lindahl 1972).  They were accorded protection by Mexico and, later, by the 1972 U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, but their populations have remained low.  Several bulls of this species have been seen in the Channel Islands off California, but no breeding has been recorded there.  The population on Guadalupe Island increased to about 1,600 by 1984 (Reeves et al. 1992) and to 7,000 in 2001 (Nowak 1999), a fraction of the original numbers.
     Other fur seal species in South Africa, islands in the Antarctic region, New Zealand and Australia were also heavily hunted, nearly causing their extinctions.  Exploitation of South African Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) began in 1610 and is still continuing.  Their major population is along the southwestern coast of Africa, but they range as far as Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand (Nowak 1999).  By the end of the 19th century, their populations along the coasts of Angola, Namibia and South Africa reached dangerously low levels, when sealing was curtailed (Nowak 1999).  After increases in the 20th century, a large commercial harvest of 75,000 was authorized on a population estimated at 1.1 million (Nowak 1999).  This species is the only fur seal still killed in a large, legal kill.  In 2000, 60,000 were killed.  Fishermen pressure the government to maintain this kill, claiming that the fur seals harm fish stocks, and fur dealers also exploit the seals for their pelts.  The hunt in Namibia was filmed in 2000 and aired on CNN (Cable News Network), showing young male seals on shore being killed by men hitting them with heavy wooden bats.  Activists are working to end this hunt, which is not humane.  Ecological studies of their population status, food supply, persecution by fishermen, effects of the frequent oil spills that occur in this region, and other important factors affecting their populations have not been carried out.  Populations in the Australia area numbered about 200,000 after several decades of sealing, and by the end of the 19th century, regulations limited the kill.  The species gradually recovered to about 25,000 in the 1940s, and because of mortality from persecution by fishermen and drowning in nets, the population still only numbers about 30,000 to 50,000 (Nowak 1999).  The New Zealand Fur Seal (Arctocephalus forsteri), which also inhabits coasts of Australia and Tasmania, was devastated by early sealing and has been slowly recovering.  Originally numbering 1.5 to 2 million, they may number only about 27,000 at present (Nowak 1999).  Along the Australian coast, they are strictly protected and now cluster in large numbers on the shore of Kangaroo Island, where boardwalks have been built above the rocks for tourists to see them.

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