Ninety years of change, from commercial extinction to recovery, range expansion and decline for Antarctic fur seals at South Georgia

With environmental change, understanding how species recover from overharvesting and maintain viable populations is central to ecosystem restoration. Here, we reconstruct 90 years of recovery trajectory of the Antarctic fur seal at South Georgia (S.W. Atlantic), a key indicator species in the krill-based food webs of the Southern Ocean. After being harvested to commercial extinction by 1907, this population rebounded and now constitutes the most abundant otariid in the World. However, its status remains uncertain due to insufficient and conflicting data, and anthropogenic pressures affecting Antarctic krill, an essential staple for millions of fur seals and other predators. Using integrated population models, we estimated simultaneously the long-term abundance for Bird Island, northwest South Georgia, epicentre of recovery of the species after sealing, and population adjustments for survey counts with spatiotemporal applicability. Applied to the latest comprehensive survey data, we estimated the population at South Georgia in 2007–2009 as 3,510,283 fur seals [95% CI: 3,140,548–3,919,604] (ca. 98% of global population), after 40 years of maximum growth and range expansion owing to an abundant krill supply. At Bird Island, after 50 years of exponential growth followed by 25 years of slow stable growth, the population collapsed in 2009 and has thereafter declined by −7.2% [−5.2, −9.1] per annum, to levels of the 1970s. For the instrumental record, this trajectory correlates with a time-varying relationship between coupled climate and sea surface temperature cycles associated with low regional krill availability, although the effects of increasing krill extraction by commercial fishing and natural competitors remain uncertain. Since 2015, fur seal longevity and recruitment have dropped, sexual maturation has retarded, and population growth is expected to remain mostly negative and highly variable. Our analysis documents the rise and fall of a key Southern Ocean predator over a century of profound environmental and ecosystem change.


Publication status:
Authors: Forcada, Jaume ORCIDORCID record for Jaume Forcada, Hoffman, Joseph I. ORCIDORCID record for Joseph I. Hoffman, Gimenez, Olivier, Staniland, Iain J., Bucktrout, Pete, Wood, Andrew G.

On this site: Andrew Wood, Jaume Forcada, Pete Bucktrout
1 December, 2023
Global Change Biology / 29
21pp / 6867-6887
Link to published article: