ANCHORAGE - Commercial hunting of northern fur seals was halted 20 years ago in the Pribilof Islands, but their numbers continue to slip.
"I've watched the decline since the 1990s. Every time you go back up there and in areas you used to see seals, you wonder what is going on," said Charles Fowler with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, who in July counted male adult fur seals in 14 rookeries on St. Paul and St. George islands.
The Pribilofs - about 750 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Bering Sea - are home to about 70 percent of the world's northern fur seals. The seals, which are listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, are found off the Alaska coast and in Russia, northern Japan and southern California waters.
This year's count in the Pribilofs recorded 9,978 adult males - a decline of 23.8 percent from 2003. Fowler cautioned that the overall number taken by itself does not provide a true picture of what is going on.
It's more important to look at the number of "harem males," breeding males with a collection of females, also sometimes called "beach masters." That number fell this year as well, from 4,368 in 2003 to 4,046 in 2004, or about a 7 percent decline, said Fowler, who is leader of NOAA's systemic management studies program.
Fowler and a small field crew, armed with bamboo poles, counted the seals from several vantage points, including elevated wooden sidewalks above the beach.
"In getting that close to the species, every once in a while we find one that doesn't like our presence. We use the bamboo poles to keep them from getting any closer," Fowler said.
In the Eastern Pacific, there were about 888,000 northern fur seals in 2000 compared with more than 2 million in the 1940s and 1950s, Fowler said. A meeting is planned this fall with Americans and Russians to get an updated number.
Fowler, who has been studying fur seals since 1979, said the cause for the decline is unknown but probably due to a combination of factors. He cited as possibilities global warming, commercial fishing, seals becoming entangled in fishing gear and toxins in the environment.