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Guadalupe fur seals are on the mend

The unfortunate reality of the name “fur seals” comes from a time when these beautiful animals were seen mainly through the eyes of hunters looking to profit from their skins. In fact, fur seals were hunted so heavily that one species – the Guadalupe fur seal (Arctocephalus townsendi) was declared extinct in the late 18001.

Thankfully, scientists sometimes make mistakes – 14 of the “extinct” fur seals were discovered on Guadalupe Island in 1950. Since the rediscovery of the Guadalupe fur seals, their numbers have continued to grow. 

Today, the IUCN estimates the Guadalupe fur seal population to be around 41,000 seals, and increasing by ten to eleven percent annually. So far, the only breeding location for the fur seals is their namesake – Guadalupe Island. 

A “haul out” colony, where the seals bask on shore and rest, was populated on San Benito Islands in the 1990’s. Now, researchers are announcing the formation of a new haul out colony, which is a good sign for the seals. The newest resting colony is on El Farallón de San Ignacio Island.

Study co-author Claudia Hernández-Camacho explained that the colony started with the observation of one adult in 2008 until today’s conditions,

“During our visits to El Farallón in 2020, we counted 492 individuals in January, and 771 in November. Most of the animals we have seen have been juveniles, and all have appeared to be in good body condition.”

The scientists observing the seals initially thought it might be a fluke to see the seals on El Farallón, considering that the island is hot and dry and not typical for fur seals. They now suspect that the island is a prime feeding area, where the seals hunt their preferred food of squid. 

The good news is that all of these islands are protected land. The bad news is that the government of Mexico still classifies the seals as only occasional visitors to El Farallón and has no conservation plan in place for them yet. 

So far, the seal populations are growing slowly and the animals can be found as far away as the coast of Washington. The seals are still in a precarious position with only one breeding location. 

“Guadalupe fur seals have only one breeding colony, so the new haul-outs in the southern Gulf of California provide some good news. However, the new sites will need regular monitoring to document their growth and possible changes in body conditions, age and sex-composition, and breeding potential,” said study co-author Andrew Trites. “This species escaped extinction once and remains vulnerable.”

The study is published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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