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Seal attack!

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A seal added excitement to the salmon fishing on the Kenai River last week.

Having been skunked on our last few outings, my friend Dillon Kimple had finally hooked a silver. It jumped right next to the boat, a good-sized fish, maybe 12 pounds. I got the landing net ready.

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We’d seen a pair of seals, an adult and a juvenile, working Falling In Hole for the previous three hours. Every few minutes, they would surface to breathe. They kept their distance from boats, usually approaching no closer than 50 feet, or so. Once in a while, one would come up with a fish in its mouth. Other than worry about whether the seals would put the fish off the bite, we didn’t fret about them. We’d never had a seal try to take a fish from us, not in the Kenai.

Dillon had “his” silver beside the boat when all hell broke loose. Water flew everywhere. Amidst the chaos, a large, brown shape zipped behind the boat, just below the surface, heading toward the main channel.

“That seal got my fish!” Dillon yelled, reeling in a slack line.

About that time, the seal surfaced about 50 feet away, without the fish. It had apparently escaped both Dillon’s hook and the seal’s jaws.

My curiosity aroused, I decided to learn more about seals. The culprit in this case was a harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), a species widespread in the north Pacific and Atlantic oceans. On the West Coast, it ranges from Baja California through the extent of the Aleutian Islands and north into Bristol Bay.

In May and June, harbor seals like to move to sheltered waterways where females give birth to a single pup, often on an iceberg. They weigh about 24 pounds at birth. Adults average about 180 pounds, with males somewhat larger than females.

Harbor seals prefer waters near shore and river estuaries, though some will swim many miles up rivers. A reliable source once told me he saw one upstream from the Kenai Keys, 45 miles upstream from the mouth of the Kenai. A small resident population lives in Iliamna Lake.

Harbor seals eat fish — pretty much any fish they can catch — as well as clams, mussels and crustaceans. They don’t chew their food, but swallow it whole or tear off chunks. They use their molars to crunch up shells. In one study, “crittercams” were attached to the seal’s heads, and biologists found that prey was consumed underwater.

If you want to blame something for eating a lot of fish, blame birds and other fish, not seals. Studies have shown that salmon are the main food source of harbor seals only when the adult fish are entering rivers to spawn, when they are numerous and have less chance to escape. For a seal, catching a salmon at sea is apparently more work than it’s worth.

Clumsy on land, harbor seals are graceful and quick in the water. They swim by moving their bodies from side to side. Two hind flippers provide propulsion, and two front flippers serve as rudders. While most of their dives are to depths of less than 65 feet and less than 4 minutes long, dives to depths of 1,640 feet and submersions longer than 20 minutes have been recorded.

Seals are hunted and preyed upon by sharks and transient orcas. Scientists estimated that transient orcas ate about 500 of the 1,500 harbor seals in Puget Sound’s Hood Canal in 2003.

Seals play a part in the diet and culture of many Alaska Natives. “Seal camps” are held, where elders teach youngsters to harvest, sew hides and preserve the meat and the oil.

According to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, only Alaska Natives can legally havest seals and other marine mammals, and then only for subsistence purposes. From 2004 to 2008, subsistence takes of harbor seals averaged about 1,600 annually, down from an annual average of about 2,700 seals from 1992 to 1998.

Now that I know more about harbor seals, I’ll be watching them with new interest. It’ll give me something to do when the fishing is slow, something besides listening to reruns of Dillon’s stories.

Les Palmer can be reached at lpalmer@alaska.net.

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