It took commercial hunters less than
40 years to wipe out the valuable
seal species on Californias Farallon
Islands. In 1807, a sea captain spotted
huge colonies of fur seals and elephant
seals on the granite outcrops 27 miles off
San Franciscos Golden Gate. By 1840,
the colonies were gonethe elephant
seals hunted to extirpation for their
blubber, the fur seals for their coats.
Forty years after the Marine Mammal
Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) and
38 years after most of the islands
wilderness designation, northern fur
seals and elephant seals are breeding
again on Farallon National Wildlife
Refuge. The islands, in one of the worlds
richest marine upwelling zones, provide
important breeding and haul-out habitat
for five pinniped species. Twenty-three
species of whales, dolphins, sea otters
and other marine mammals also swim in
Globally, marine mammals still face
grave threats, from polluted seas,
ship strikes and ghost fishing nets to
cascading changes in marine ecosystems.
But there is good news from refuges,
In 1972, researchers observed the first
elephant seal pup born on the Farallon
Islands in about 100 years. In 1996,
northern fur seals returned to give birth
for the first time since the era of wanton
commercial hunting. Their population has
grown steadily to more than 500 animals.
At least 180 northern fur seal pups were
born on the islands in 2011.
The northern fur seals rebound is
really a tremendous success story,
says Russell Bradley, Farallon program
manager for PRBO Conservation
Science, an independent research
organization that administers the refuge
with the Service. This national wildlife
refuge has expanded the range of this
species in the Lower 48 states ... Thats
Northern fur seals were once the most
abundant pinnipeds on the islands,
says Farallon Refuge manager Gerry
McChesney. For 150 years, they were
gone. Now, theyre back and theyre
continuing to expand.
McChesney and Bradley credit synergy
between the MMPA, which outlawed
killing, selling, capturing or harassing
marine mammals in the United States,
and land and sea protections put in place
at about the same time.
They cite the 1965 closure of a U.S.
Navy radio station; expansion of
Farallon Refuge in 1969 and 1974, with
two-thirds of the island chain designated
as wilderness; and the 1981 creation
of the Gulf of Farallones National
Marine Sanctuary, managed by the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA). Together,
these changes gave managers tools to
significantly reduce human disturbance
of the islands wildlife.
Today, the islands only human
inhabitants are a few biologists and
refuge staff. Visitors can explore the
islands by boat, at speeds of 5 mph and
from a football-field distance most of the
year. To prevent stampedes, overflights
lower than 2,000 feet are forbidden.
Before the MMPA, rowdy boaters
harassed and occasionally shot at the
islands pinnipeds, but public attitudes
have changed and such incidents are rare.
The trends are not all positive. Since
the 1980s, El Niņo storms have eroded
the sandy beaches where elephant seals
breed and haul out. In 2011, only 96
elephant seal pups were born on the
refuge, the fewest since 1976.
Threatened Steller sea lions are
declining throughout the central
California portion of their range, victims
of contaminants, disease and changes in
ocean currents. Very few pups are born
on the Farallon Islands.
But observers occasionally see the rarest
native pinniped, the Guadalupe fur seal.
Hunted almost to extinction, that species
now breeds only off Baja California, but
its numbers are slowly growing and
managers hope it may one day recolonize
Heather Dewar is a writer-editor
in the Refuge System Branch of