Fur seals on Macquarie Island

Young fur seal on West Beach. Its fur is slick as it has just come out of the water
Young fur seal on West Beach (Photo: Barend (Barry) Becker)

Macquarie Island was discovered by sealers in July 1810. Harvesting commenced immediately and by about 1820, the sealer's had taken almost 200,000 skins and in the process had eliminated the entire population. The identity of the original species is unknown.

Fur seals were present in small numbers when the ANARE base on Macquarie Island was established in 1948, although none were breeding at that time. In 1954, 130 years after the cessation of sealing, the first fur seal pup was born. Annual pup production increased slowly up until the 1980s when the population began to increase exponentially.

Macquarie Island is unique among fur seal populations in that it contains three species, Antarctic (Arctocephalus gazella), subantarctic (A. tropicalis) and New Zealand fur seals (A. forsteri). The breeding population consists mainly of Antarctic and subantarctic fur seals, although New Zealand fur seal males hold breeding territories and occasionally females breed also.

The recent rapid increase in pup production at Macquarie Island is driven primarily by the expanding Antarctic fur seal population (about 13% per year), which accounts for about 65% of the entire population. In recent seasons the subantarctic fur seal population has begun to show a significant annual increase also (9% per year) and accounts for about 20% of the entire fur seal population. Antarctic, subantarctic and New Zealand fur seals hybridise at Macquarie Island, with hybrids accounting for about 15% of the population.

A long-term research program has monitored the recovery and biology of the fur seal population since 1986. Parks and Wildlife staff conduct seal and pup counts every year.