First-Year Survival of Northern Fur Seals (Callorhinus ursinus) Can Be Explained by Pollock (Gadus chalcogrammus) Catches in the Eastern Bering Sea

by Jeffrey W. Short, Harold J. Geiger, Lowell W. Fritz, and Jonathan J. Warrenchuk

J. Mar. Sci. Eng. 2021, 9(9), 975;

The Pribilof northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) herd in the eastern Bering Sea has declined by ~70% since the 1970s, for elusive reasons. Competition for pollock (Gadus chalcogramma) with the commercial fishery has been suspected as a contributing factor, but no correlative relationship between fishing activity and fur seal population declines has heretofore been demonstrated. Here, we present evidence for a moderately strong inverse relationship between fishery catches of pollock and first-year survival of fur seals, based on three different approaches to evaluation. We suspect this relationship results from the dependence of lactating female fur seals on locating dense and extensive schools of pollock near the Pribilof Islands to efficiently provide nutrition for their pups, because the pollock fishery also targets these same schools, and when fished, the remnants of these schools are fragmented and dispersed, making them more difficult for fur seals to locate and exploit. Inadequately fed pups are less likely to survive their initial independent residence at sea as they migrate south from the Pribilof Islands in the fall. Our results imply that pollock catches above ~1,000,000 t within ~300 km of the Pribilof Islands may continue to suppress first-year survival of Pribilof fur seals below the estimated equilibrium survival value of 0.50, leading to continued decline of the population.