ALASKA'S northern fur seal population for three decades has been classified as depleted, but the marine mammals are showing up in growing numbers at an unlikely location :

A tiny island that forms the tip of an active underseas volcano.

Vents on Bogoslof island continue to spew mud, steam and sulfurous gases two years after an eruption sent ash clouds into the path of jetliners passing over the Bering Sea.

The population growth of northern fur seals at Bogoslof has been extraordinary, said Tom Gelatt, who leads a NOAA Fisheries group that studies northern fur seals.

Most of the world's roughly 1.1 million northern fur seals breed in the eastern Bering Sea. The animals live in the ocean from November to June and head for the land in summer to breed and nurse pups.

But why the seals chose volatile Bogoslof over the dozens of others uninhabited Aleutian Islands is unclear.

Food in the deep water near the island could be a factor. Bogoslof is surrounded by deep water, and its seals eat squid and northern smoothtongue, a deep-water fish that looks like smelt.

Seals on St Paul, the largest of the Pribilof Islands, forage on the shallow continental shelf for walleye pollock. a fish targeted  by commercial fishermen.

Females with pups on Bogoslof return from foraging faster than Pribilof mothers, possibly allowing their pups to receive more meals and wean at a larger size, Galatt said.

Bogoslof also is closer to winter feeding grounds south of the Aleutians, possibly allowing pups to reach the grounds with less from Bering Sea storms.

Northern fur seals were named for their concentrated fur : fur seals have  350,000 hair per square inch. The animals have a prominent role in the history of colonised Alaska.

After hunting sea otters to near-extinction, Russian traders turned to northern fur seals and relocated Aleuts to the Pribilofs to kill and process seals.

When Emperor Alexander II needed cash and decided to sell Alaska to the United States in 1867, fur was one of the future states known assets.

But by 1988, four years after the commercial harvest ended on St Paul, the northern fur seal population had declined by more than half from its 1950 estimated population of 2.1 million animals. [AP]


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