WILDLIFE

SEALS, SEA LIONS, WHAT ABOUT THE BIRDS?

Each summer more than one million northern fur seals congregate on the shores of the Pribilof Islands. This is the largest gathering of marine mammals anywhere in the world. Approximately 250,000 of these animals, as well as a number of harbor seals and Stellar sea lions, are found on St. George Island.


Northern fur seals spend most of the year ranging throughout the Pacific Ocean waters of the Soviet Union,Japan, Canada, and the United States, but when it comestime to breed they must come ashore. Seventy percent of the world’s northern fur seal population chooses the
cool, moist climate and rocky beaches of the Pribilofs for breeding, returning each year to the very beaches where they were born.


Soon after coming ashore in spring, female seals give birth to their pups. Throughout the summer the beaches are vibrant with activity; seal pups playing, mother seals swimming out to sea to feed, and bulls fighting off competitors.


An international fur treaty, signed initially in 1911, safeguards the seals from being indiscriminately hunted at sea. The treaty stipulates that the United States and the Soviet Union must each restrict their sealing activities to the Pribilof and Commander Islands, and in return for
accepting a ban on pelagic sealing, the United States, Soviet Union, Japan, and Canada each receive a share of the pelts taken during the yearly commercial harvests.
Commercial harvests, however, have ceased in recent years and the communities of St. George and St. Paul now undertake small subsistence harvests each summer..

Two seabirds perched on a rock

Most experts believe that without the treaty the seals would now be endangered. In 1910, prior to acceptance of the treaty, the seal herd reached its lowest level at about 300,000 animals. Today the total seal population numbers close to a million. If the treaty were to be abolished many people believe the seals would once again be hunted at sea, by fishermen who contend the seals reduce fish stocks and by those who want the seals for their valuable fur. Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and National Audubon Society cite the international fur seal treaty as an outstanding example of wildlife conservation management.