Northern Fur Seals and The Pribilofs, Part Three

Seattle Aquarium mammal biologist, Julie Carpenter recently assisted NOAA scientists from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center with their annual research in the Pribliof Islands of Alaska, which are home to breeding colonies (or rookeries) of the northern fur seal. By collaborating on the research and actually participating in it side-by-side with the field researchers, Julie gained firsthand experience and knowledge of the research techniques and the technical challenges of working with the wild population, making her uniquely suited to bring a deeper understanding of this work back to the staff and visitors of the Seattle Aquarium. Through this collaborative relationship, our hope is to continue to educate people about the critical population studies being conducted annually in these far-off islands and the many issues surrounding the Pribilof fur seals. Learn about Julie’s experience in the Pribliof Islands in this six-part blog series.

Day 3

Today we headed to the Zapadni Reef Rookery at 10am. We are so far west in the Alaska time zone that it doesn’t get light until after 9am and the pups, I’m told, generally don’t haul out until late morning. Like yesterday, about four people went ahead of the group with their long herding poles to sneak onto the rookery. The rest of us stayed back until they were done herding about 50 pups up the grass. We would then carry the gear including homemade fence barriers used for holding pups, buckets and tripods for weighing the pups, containers with flipper tagging equipment and first aid kits.

I’m jokingly told to stay away from the “bitey-end” (as if anyone would need reminding… have you seen their teeth?) Because no blood was to be drawn, the methods were different allowing for shorter handling time of the pup. There was a small net fence, set up the previous day, to hold the majority of the pups that were rounded up and three short fences set up like a goalie net to hold about a dozen pups that are moved away from the fenced herd. They were grabbed from the goalie-like fence and a quick peek determined if they were a male or female pup. Males were released and females were tagged and weighed. Male northern fur seals are territorial and one male can control anywhere from a handful to dozens of females on his territory for the duration of the breeding season (meaning many males never get a chance to mate – bummer). Females are more important to track through their lifetime, as their health ensures more pups for the population in the future. We placed the females on one of two tables to apply a flipper tag, marked with a unique identifying number, to the trailing edge of their front flippers. Then they were placed in a bucket and hung on a scale to measure how much they weigh and then immediately released. Occasionally, a released pup would wander back into the tagging area trying to bite everything and everyone it came close to (so feisty!)

From the time the little female was picked up to when it is released, lasts less than a minute. The researchers are extremely efficient and understand that the nature of this research can be invasive, yet invaluable and every effort is made to work quickly, gently and quietly to minimize stress to the animal. Each animal provides precious information to help National Marine Fisheries Service scientists understand northern fur seal biology and ecology and figure out why St. Paul Island’s fur seal population continues to decline about 6% each year.

Northern Fur Seal pups

Aren’t they adorable? But I highly recommend staying away from the bitey-end.

In the next post, Julie heads to Polovina Cliffs to help collect blood samples. To learn more about northern fur seals, come visit the Aquarium!

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