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Northern Fur Seals Rebound in Sanctuary Waters

By Walt Bonora
National Marine Sanctuaries

Northern fur seals, hunted for their luxurious and valuable fur, all but disappeared from California’s north coast more than 170 years ago.

The Farallon Islands, 27 miles west of San Francisco and surrounded by the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, once supported hundreds of thousands of breeding northern fur seals -- marine predators with thick, soft pelts. But their lush fur proved their undoing. During a three year period in the early 1800’s, hunters slaughtered over 150,000 seals. The killing continued until 1834 when the remaining population fled, abandoning their rookeries for more than a century and a half.

A few started returning to the islands in the early 1970s. Each year thereafter more arrived, and in 1996 the first northern fur seal pup was born in the sanctuary in over 150 years. “It was amazing,” said Jan Roletto, “to see northern fur seals breeding again after so many years.” Roletto, a research coordinator with the Farallones sanctuary, was part of a team of researchers who first discovered the pup.

Approximately 100 pups have been born in each of the past two breeding seasons, an indication of the islands' enduring vitality and proof that a sensitive species can rebound under favorable circumstances.

Those circumstances exist thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and further strengthened when Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1981, giving numerous marine species, including the northern fur seals, protected waters in which to thrive. The islands where they breed are a wildlife refuge providing further protection for the seals.

Sanctuary spokeswoman Mary Jane Schramm notes, “Species and marine ecosystems are threatened globally, and good news is hard to find. When we do find it, we seize on it, and we send out the message that hope exists – but only when we protect wildlife and wild habitats.”

The story of the northern fur seals could hopefully be the story of other threatened marine species that can rebound when given the necessary protections like national marine sanctuaries.

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