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Save the spotted seal - At risk in the Bohai Sea

FEW people think of China as the home of seals, but Liaoning and Shandong provinces are the winter home of endangered spotted seals, the only seal that breeds in Chinese waters. Zuo Lingren tells the story.

Once there were millions of spotted seals around northeast China and the Korean Peninsula, but due to rampant hunting over the years and competition with fishermen for food, the number has dwindled.

Prized for their supple waterproof skin, thick soft fur and organs as aphrodisiacs, seals are now protected by Chinese law.

The Chinese National Geography team reached Panjin in Liaoning Province in April 2009. Although it was still chilly that time of year, the ice at the mouth of the Shuangtaizi River was already melting; tons of sediment were flowing like slurry in the river. On a river bank some 10 kilometers from the river's mouth, close to 100 spotted seals (Phoca largha) were basking in the sun.

A few hundred meters away was a makeshift hut - a station from which to observe the seals, and the abode of a few lonely staff from the local fishery administration.

"This station's quite posh!" exclaimed photographer Xu Jian. This was his third visit. On his first trip in 2002, there was no observation station; he was free to roam on a boat with Han Jiabo, an expert from the Liaoning Marine Fisheries Research Institute.

On Xu's second visit, an outpost station had been set up, but it was leased from a local fisherman, and quite far upstream from where the seals were. Now, in the midst of a wilderness overgrown with reeds, is a station with its own electricity, a cooking stove and a heated bed. This is heaven.

In stark contrast, the fortunes of the spotted seals here have been on the decline. Once there were close to 10,000 spotted seals on the Liaodong Peninsula, but by 1979 there were only 2,000-plus seals. From 1983, conservation efforts led to a gradual increase in numbers, but in recent years the population has suffered another blow. In a 2008 survey, only 300 seals were spotted, indicating the total population was less than 1,000.

Living in temperate and cold waters, the spotted seal is distributed in the North Pacific and the coasts and islands of the Yellow Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Sea and Okhotsk Sea. In China, the spotted seal is found mainly in the Bohai Sea and Yellow Sea. The Liaodong Bay in the Bohai Sea marks the southernmost breeding habitat.

The spotted seal spends most of its time in the water, coming out on ice or land only to molt, breed, give birth and nurse its pups. The seal also makes frequent appearances in estuaries, ice floes, muddy beaches, coral reefs and swampy wetlands.

Every year, from November through May the following year, spotted seals can be found on the estuary beaches of the Shuangtaizi River in Liaoning Province, the island of Huping off Liaoning's Dalian City, and Miaodao Island off Shandong Province, according to Wang Pilie, a researcher with the Liaoning Province Ocean and Fisheries Science Research Institute.

Wang has studied seals for many years and says those are the three main habitats in the Bohai Sea. The Shuangtaizi estuary is a major breeding area in winter and the traditional haunt after the winter ice has melted.

Spotted seals are not fussy eaters and easily adapt their diet to their environment and the seasons.

The Bohai Sea in northeast China is the innermost bay of the Yellow Sea, and is surrounded by land on all sides except in the east, where it is connected to the Yellow Sea by the Bohai Strait. Around 40 rivers flow into Bohai Bay; the shallow estuarine waters are rich in food and nutrients, making them suitable for commercial farming of fish, shrimp and crabs.

The offshore waters of the Bohai Sea are an important migratory and wintering ground for many species of fish and shellfish. With such an abundance of food, it is no surprise that this is the winter home of choice for the spotted seal.

Every winter, the frozen Liaodong Bay and Shuangtaizi estuary provide a place for seals to raise their pups. Within the Bohai Sea, Liaodong Bay has the longest and most extensive ice cover, and is a preferred breeding site for the spotted seal - the only seal known to breed within Chinese waters.

The breeding season begins in mid-winter, and the pups are born in January. The newborns are covered in a dense white coat of fur with hollow shafts that insulates them from the cold, but they can't go in the water as the fur is so absorbent that the pup would either drown or freeze to death. They start to shed fur in a few days and after a month they are weaned and ready to dive in and live on their own.

Then the seals disperse to the coastal areas and fatten up; the adults, who have completed their reproductive duties, take a well-deserved vacation in Liaodong Bay, the Shuangtaizi estuary and other coastal islands in the Bohai Sea.

Hunted down

Seals used to be hunted for their supple skin, their fur (of pups) and for male organs used as aphrodisiacs in traditional Chinese medicine. Today they are protected, but the number has dropped significantly and they are rightly wary of humans.

Tian Jihui is the head of the local fisheries administration in Panshan County in Liaoning's Panjin city.

"A few years ago there were many spotted seals in Panshan," says Tian. "From a boat on the Shuangtaizi River, we could see the shore covered with seals. But they all took off into the water the moment we got too close."

Even on land humans have to stay 500 meters from the animals; if they get closer, the seals will shift closer to the water or plunge in and swim a good distance away before they surface and watch warily.

Over at the observation post by the Shuangtaizi River was researcher Lu Zhichuang from the Liaoning Ocean and Fisheries Science Research Institute. For 10 days he had been recording numbers and behavior of the seals.

"The seals here are very wary of humans; it's hard to get close to them," says Lu, a lad in his 20s. In 2009 there were only around 100 seals near the river but it was better than the situation in 2004 when only 40 were recorded.

In the Changdao Islands off Shandong Province, the spotted seals descend every February. Villager and fisherman Lin Kewu is an avid photographer and seal conservationist.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, there were still many seals here," says Lin, "but many locals had rifles, and many started hunting the seals."

Lin estimated that back then there were 2,000 to 3,000 seals, but by 1997, when he first started taking pictures, the number had dwindled to less than 300.

On our visit in 2009, we saw only around 20 seals.

Many factors contribute to the dwindling seal population. Fishermen in Liaodong Bay have been hunting the spotted seal for centuries. An ancient Chinese medical text noted that the seal's skin was "as supple as leather" and suitable for saddle making.

"It's easy to catch the pups - they can hardly put up a fight when grabbed by the tail," says researcher Wang Pilie. "As for the adults, the hunters club them on the head until they are unconscious or dead."

The soft fur of pups was sought for winter clothing, while the skin of adults yielded leather.

"Seal meat does not taste great, but one can get plenty of oil from it, and the skin is excellent," says fisherman Lin, who used to own a sealskin rug that could repel insects in summer.

In the 1950s it was common to find colonies of a hundred seals or more around the estuaries of the Liaodong Bay, but today it is hard to spot a single one. According to researcher Wang, around 1,000 seals were hunted every year in the 1950s; in the 1950s and 1960s this figure dropped to 400-500 seals. The hunting has taken its toll on the spotted seal.

200 yuan to save a seal

The spotted seal is now protected by state laws in China. In 1992, the first nature reserve for spotted seals was established by the Bohai Sea in Dalian, and a similar reserve was set up in Shandong's Miaodao Islands in 2001. Their post-winter feeding grounds are now protected as part of the Shuangtaizi Estuary National Nature Reserve.

The Chinese National Geography team stayed at the wildlife station by the Shuangtaizi River for almost 10 days. Within the course of a week, the staff received many calls from fishermen who had accidentally caught a spotted seal. Each time director Tian Jihui would rush to the scene, pass the fisherman 200 yuan (US$30), and bring the seal to the wildlife station. In that one week his team saved six spotted seals, all of them less than a year old.

The beach here slopes gently out to sea for a few kilometers, so the fishermen set up their nets during high tide and return at low tide to get their catch. Inexperienced pups get caught in the nets.

The local fisheries department wasn't exactly loaded with cash; in fact, the wildlife station was powered by a diesel generator to save money. But Tian felt the reward for the fishermen was worth it.

"A spotted seal could fetch 20,000 yuan on the black market," he says, "but we need only 200 yuan to spread the message and save a life at the same time. This is money well spent."

Genetic studies conducted by the Liaoning research institute show that the spotted seals in China constitute an independent population; there is no evidence of interbreeding with their nearest counterparts from the seas of Hokkaido, Japan.

Satellite tracking of tagged seals have shed light on their migratory habits. It was thought that the spotted seal migrates to its summer home on the Korean Peninsula by hugging the coastline while going south, but the latest findings showed the seals heading straight out through the Bohai Strait.

Baengnyeong Island is South Korea's largest island in the Yellow Sea. Every year from mid-March, spotted seals can be found in the waters of this island, covering 45.6 square kilometers. The number of migrants reaches its peak around July or August. Here the seals molt, feed and fight for mating rights. In October, pregnant females take the lead in leaving Baengnyeong for their wintering grounds. By December all the seals have left Baengnyeong, to return only next March.

Competition with local fishermen for food is on the increase. Fishing boats frequent the same waters as the seals, reeling in nets full of yellow croaker and other fish. According to fisherman Lin, this has driven the seals to turn to aquaculture farms, biting holes in floating nets and feasting on the fish or shellfish within.

The spotted seal has quite a voracious appetite - a 60- to 70-kilogram seal eats 7 or 8 kilograms of fish and shellfish daily. With the ever increasing development of coastal areas and the exploitation of marine resources, the pressure to find food is the greatest threat currently faced by the spotted seals in China.


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