Patagonian elephant seal demise foreseen
Male elephant seals can weigh up to 7,500 pounds, and come ashore only twice a year once to molt and once to mate
March 23, 1999
Web posted at: 2:30 PM EST
For some species, the roller coaster of survival -- being hunted to near extinction, recovering and then being threatened again, is becoming a way of life. Claudio Campagna, a researcher with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, wants to sound the alarm and alert us to the fact that this is the ride southern elephant seals are currently on.
Campagna has studied the elephant seal population at the Peninsula Valdes, part of the Patagonian reserve in Argentina, for 20 years. The peninsula supports the fourth largest elephant seal population in the world and the only growing population.
Having been hunted to near extinction in the 1800s for their oil, you might think that the protected status which they enjoy might actually protect them from another ride toward extinction. You would be wrong.
Today, though, it's fishermen, not hunters that pose the largest threat. Overfishing, which has reached pandemic proportions in most of the world's fisheries, is forcing fishermen to seek new fishing grounds and lower-value fish.
Elephant seal males can grow to 16-20 feet long and weigh up to 7,500 pounds (think of a truck, or a school bus). They can live to be 20 years old and spend most of their time in the ocean far from shore, feeding. Southern elephant seals come ashore only twice a year: once to molt, shedding their entire coat in less than a month, and a second time to mate, give birth and feed their young.
Females can lose up to 35 percent of their body weight while on shore giving birth and feeding their young. Pups can weigh 300 pounds by the time they're weaned and left on their own.
To maintain this enormous size, a great deal of fish must be consumed, and Campagna is afraid that the ever-increasing volume of squid being taken by commercial fishermen along the edge of the continental shelf at the seal's feeding grounds will ultimately prove catastrophic.
"My worry is that people won't pay attention to a population that appears to be doing well, but instead wait until it becomes an emergency situation and saving them is too late," he says.
A commitment by national and international governing bodies to set up offshore ocean refuges, and to manage high seas fisheries is needed now to protect the seals, Campagna says. Otherwise it will be just a matter of time before numbers begin to plummet.
Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved
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