Are Wild Seals Being Hurt By Scientific Tagging Methods?

What happens when the methods used to save a species actually do them further harm?

It’s a frustrating scenario for wildlife biologists: an animal almost hunted to extinction rebounds nicely, then its recovery mysteriously stops. What gives? But in trying to answer that question, biologists have discovered another frustrating conundrum: could the technology being used to study the animals actually be doing harm as well as good.

For the past couple of decades, marine biologists have been tracking wild northern fur seals. Native to the North Pacific, northern fur seals were hunted for their luxurious pelts from the 1700s until their population crashed in the early 1900s. After the United States set hunting restrictions, the population recovered, but in the 1970s numbers started declining again.

“Over about the last 15 or 20 years the population’s been going down at about six percent per year,” says David Rosen, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia.

To solve the mystery, scientists turned to satellite tags to track the fur seals’ movements across the ocean. By affixing tracking tags to animals, researchers can virtually dive, hunt, and migrate with wildlife they could never otherwise follow, and collect invaluable data.

Photo: Liam Quinn/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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