• Fur seals signal poor ocean health
Editor’s note: The M/V Tiglax’s work as a research ship enables U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientists and other agencies to get to remote parts of Alaska that would otherwise be inaccessible. First-time discoveries emerge from the Alaska National Maritime Refuge based in Homer, making it world class for research detecting ocean health. This is the fourth in a series of articles to describe that work enroute from Homer to St. Paul.
By Naomi Klouda
The M/V Tiglax meets its schedule by making it to the first Pribilof Island stop at St. George on Friday, after leaving the Homer port on Monday.
Rough seas and heavy fog shrouded the journey crossing the Bering Sea to get here, carrying its load of lumber and a new U.S. Fish and Wild Service truck on the foredeck. A check on its tie downs show it didn’t budge the whole trip.
“Piece of cake. We’ve hauled and delivered bigger things than this,” said Chief Ship Engineer Eric Nelson. “We’ve seen some crazy storms. One time it was 120-knot wind speeds. That was the worst storm I’ve ever been in. It taught me this is a tough boat. It has its own rhythm. It’s not a violent, snappy roll that hurts people. It’s a gentle motion.”
Offloading the truck for Fish and Wildlife and lumber for NOAA’s construction maintenance is the first task on St. George. It’s the final leg of the voyage for the Youth Conservation Corp workers, Axel Gillam and Katherine Dolma, with their leader biologist Ingrid Harrald.
It’s a big operation getting the truck strapped up and hooked to the ship’s heavy lift crane arm for a ride up in the air and careful set down on the dock.
Dangling in midair for several minutes, the truck might as well have been a toy handled by strong arms. The arms belonging to the Tiglax and its crew.
More than 240 species have been identified, and an estimated two million seabirds nest here annually. St. Paul is particularly popular, having a high cliff wall, known as Ridge Wall, above the Bering Sea.
“Rare Asian birds are swept here by Bering Sea storms,” Houston Flores explains on a tour. Flores is one of two seasonal biologists monitoring birds on the Pribilofs. “This is the first land they find. Since there are no trees, we find them on the giant crab pot towers. They’ll mistake them for trees, so they nest or roost there.”
Dubbed the Galopogas of Alaska, birds seen nowhere else in North America show up here. A ruddy Turnstone showed up a few weeks before, Houston said. “They are called that because they turn stones over to get food underneath.”
King eiders are also seen on salt water, in the harbor and along rocky beaches. Mongolian plovers, several species of petrels, and the puffins all inhabit the island’s waters in season.
St. George fog is lifted by the time the ship gets unloaded, shedding a spotlight on the low green hills of the village across island from the port. The town is clustered around a collection of historical warehouses where pelts were salted and washed for the giant commercial harvests under U.S. Treasury supervision in the late 1800s. This is called the Seal Historic District. The buildings remain in place, but need constant maintenance. That’s where Marc Hoover’s role traveling aboard the Tiglax comes in. He is the maintenance supervisor for NOAA, which is the current owner of the buildings in a partnership with the tribe.
The birds attracted to Priblofs are a haven for bird research and for birders. The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge has two bird monitoring stations here. Another big reason for federal fishery oversight is the presence of the magnificent, boisterous, cranky fur seals scattered along the coasts of five Priblof Islands.
The Alaska Regional Office of NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the protection, conservation and management of North Pacific and Bering Sea northern fur seals. About 50 percent of the population of fur seals breeds on these islands. The Pribilof Islands’ northern fur seal population was listed as depleted in June 1988 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, because the population declined to less than 50 percent of late 1950’s population levels.
“We’re still trying to understand what is happening that makes it difficult for their populations to rebound,” said Colorado State University Veterinary Professor Terry Spraker. He travels to Alaska each summer to work on studies with NOAA and the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government.
The “family” rookeries are seemingly gridded out by the dominant fur seal males, almost in exact increments, in established territorial rights fought for, in some cases, to the death. Inside that territory is a wary, watchful male, which can weigh up to 600 pounds, his harem of as many females as he can fight for, and the tiny fur seal pups. The females appear not even half as big, at 120 pounds each.
As we watch from a high catwalk, newborns are still being calved on the rocks below. Red foxes, also plentiful on the island, steal into the rookeries to clean up the placenta. A vigilant bull snorts and bellows to scare him off.
Strict rules guide tourism around the rookeries. Special viewing stations are set up. Signs indicate places where you cannot pull over on the road and get close to a rookery. Permission and supervision limits the number of people disturbing the fur seals.
“It’s to protect people as much as it is to protect the animals,” explains seasonal biologist Houston, whose main role is bird monitoring but he is also frequently around the seals as he conducts his own studies. “The males can fight one another to the death, and they’ll protect their territory against humans.”
Another stressor is that the males are so busy protecting territory and harem, they don’t eat or hunt during the mating season. A separate rookery is inhabited by only the bachelors who one day will be the new dominants. But for now, they keep a safe distance from the family grids.
Spraker, the vet from Colorado State University, and a handful of other monitors, are the only ones who get close to the fur seals. But even they follow strict guidelines about keeping to catwalks and using the blinds. Spraker keeps a vigil over seal pups, gathering them up when found dead and hauling them to the lab.
On this one weekend, he had found dead pups. Until late at night, he worked in the lab on their necropsies, trying to determine the cause of death and preparing intestines for multiple tests.
“About 50 percent of the pups that we necropsy die of malnutrition. About 20 percent of them die of trauma. About 15 percent of them are associated with birth, birth problems like distosia,” Spraker explains.
Distosia means when they have trouble giving birth, or died around the time of being born, at least within the first 12 hours of birth. About 15 of all pups die within the first 12 hours of birth.
Pups that die from being stomped in a fight show specific signs under necropsy, Spraker explains in his studies. “The bulls do squash some of these pups in their normal running around activity when they’re protecting their rookeries, so that’s one of the ways that this blunt trauma is caused,” he said.
Another striking cause is the 50 percentage who die of malnutrition. In one of the world’s richest seas, seals maybe starving to death.
“The ocean is losing the smaller fish that the seals used to eat. Now they are eating the trash fish bycatch,” Spraker explained. “I am looking at parasite counts to hopefully find out the causes of death.”
Overall, the mortality rate for these fur seals is 5-6 percent, which isn’t abnormal. But necropsies reveal a strain on the mother’s health, indicating she isn’t receive adequate nutrition, which then passes that deficiency on to infants.
To protect the fur seals from viruses that can be passed on from canines, no dogs are allowed on either St. George or St. Paul. This means, no family pet of that variety.
The islands also outlawed plastic bags at grocery stores. Stop at the AC North Commercial, and you’ll be loaded up in a paper bag. This too is a move to protect the marine animals from plastics that often end up in the ocean and entangle the seals.
Since the seals are a valued food to the local Aleuts, the tribe has protected its right to the harvests. The historic practice of harvesting a certain number commercially for their pelts stopped, but the food harvest continues.
On St. Paul Island, the subsistence harvest for northern fur seal meat began in 1984 when the commercial harvest for pelts ceased. Only “bachelors” or immature males are taken for food during the subsistence harvest. The harvest is carefully monitored, and written about in reports such as “The Subsistence Harvest of Sub-Adult Northern Fur Seals on
St. Paul Island, Alaska in 2011” by Pamela M. Lestenkof, Paul I. Melovidov, Dallas V. Roberts, and Phillip A. Zavadil.
“The harvest is a well-planned and orderly activity, implemented similarly to the commercial harvest for pelts only on a smaller scale in order to meet the community’s needs. Young male northern fur seals are gathered by driving them from their haul-out areas to a specific killing field where they are held in a large pod. Five to ten seals are then cut from this large pod and driven to a group of three to four men who stun the animals by hitting them on the skull or upper neck with a solid wooden club. The animals are dragged a short distance away from the killing area where the chest and heart are cut open. The animals are then skinned and butchered for human consumption,” the report states.
The rookeries retain their ancient Russian names. They have Morjovi Rookery, Lukanin Rookery, Polovina Rookery and Gorbatch Rookery. If since 1788, these fur seals have been harvested in great numbers, they have survived two harsh centuries only to face a new unknown challenge from their environment. Consider that when Libby Beaman, who kept a famed diary, arrived in 1878, there were 300,000 fur seals being harvested in a single season. Today, the entire population on the Priblofs is estimated at under 700,000.
Spraker said in an interview, “I don’t see very many young animals coming back and I think that might be a problem. I see what we call the edge effect, which is more harassment of males to females around the edges of the rookeries.”
Now that the rookeries are small, there’s a lot more “edge effect” than when the rookeries were fairly large.
“I think all of these factors play a role. Maybe some of the females are not getting enough to eat, because that’s why we’re seeing so much starvation. I don’t know, but I think it’s a combination of factors that are leading to this decrease in population. It’s going to take a long time to weed out all these different factors, because it’s not a single thing,” Spraker said.
Each year’s data gradually accumulates a record scientists hope will tell them more on this aspect of the ocean’s health.
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