Guadalupe fur seals (Arctocephalus townsendi) are a near-threatened species and any new population discovered is major news to conservationists. A new large resting colony of these magnificent creatures colony has been discovered in the Gulf of California. This is the fourth different location the Guadalupe fur seals inhabit. 

Although they were abundant 200 years ago, the number of Guadalupe seals has decreased rapidly. This new colony was discovered on El Farallón de San Ignacio Island, along the mainland coast of Mexico, according to researchers from Mexico and the University of British Columbia.

The main reason for their disappearance and extinct status in the 1800’s was the popularity of seal pelt in the fur trade. Unlike most seal species, fur seals have a soft and dense coat to help protect them from abrasive cold water currents. However, 14 individuals were discovered on Guadalupe Island in 1950 and through the efforts of various research and protection organizations, the population has rebounded well.  Current population estimates stand at 41,000 individuals and is growing at an annual rate of 10-11 per cent per year, according to the media release published by the University of British Columbia. 

This is the second sizable resting colony discovered since the 1990s. The main breeding ground still remains Guadalupe island, hence the name. But, the San Benito Islands in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California was identified in 1990 as a great site and has now become a big resting site for this endangered species. 

But this second site has been identified housing a large population and this is a significant discovery that proves how conservation efforts can work tremendously provided time and effort is put into species recovery. 

“We observed a single adult male Guadalupe fur seal ashore at El Farallón de San Ignacio Island in 2008, and later spotted several juvenile fur seals in 2014 and 2016. This led us to increase our observation efforts in 2019, with wonderful results,” said Claudia Hernández-Camacho, corresponding author, and professor in the Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas, Instituto Politécnico Nacional in the media release. “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.”

“We at first thought that the animal sighted in 2008 was an anomaly,” said Andrew Trites, professor in the Marine Mammal Research Unit, based in UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, and co-author of the research findings published in Marine Mammals Science. “El Farallón is a small, hot and arid island, and not a place where anyone would have expected to find fur seals. However, the past six years of observation have shown that the young Guadalupe fur seals clearly like it. The question is why?”

The study details the location as a potential feeding area. The area around El Farallón de San Ignacio Island is choc-a-block with prey that these seals love. Guadalupe fur seals are known to feed mainly on opalescent squid, Humboldt squid and purpleback squid align with fish like mackerel, sardines, and lanternfish.

In addition to the new colony discovered at El Farallón de San Ignacio Island, a smaller haul-out also in the southern Gulf of California has also been growing since 2019 on nearby Las Animas Islet.

Both of these haul-outs in the Gulf of California are in protected areas, known as Áreas de Protección de Flora y Fauna Islas del Golfo de California. This is immense when it comes to maintaining diversity in our oceans. For long, middle of the food chain animals were being hunted down, causing a number mismatch. Now that these fur seals are occupying areas under protection, it could slowly become a major breeding ground for these adorable but capable hunters. 

With the confirmed establishment of the El Farallón colony, it is important that Mexico develop a conservation policy that addresses the importance of the southern Gulf of California as a feeding ground for vulnerable Guadalupe fur seals. This can only be achieved through education and understanding. If the cycle of marine creatures and the importance of predators are more lucid to governing bodies, it becomes easier to pass laws that protect threatened animals. Though hunting of Guadalupe seals is illegal, now the major threat is the lack of breeding and resting sites to support the growing numbers. 

As these seals venture further north towards the coasts of Southern California on the Channel Islands, strandings have also been reported. These strandings could be a result of warmer water pushing their food northward or a sign of Guadalupe fur seals returning to their former California habitat where they were found aplenty in the early 1700s.

As these seals move towards the southern Gulf of California, their interactions with humans could also increase. It could force reconsideration and education of how these solitary hunters lead lives in the churning waters of the gulf surrounded by smaller prey and larger predators.  — and are known to range as far as the coastlines of Washington and British Columbia. However, they only occur in just four places in Mexico.

“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 Trites. “This species escaped extinction once and remains vulnerable.”