San Benito Islands are not inhabited year-round: only about 70 individuals actually inhabit the island during the abalone season. The rest of the year is thus deserted. But this doesn’t mean the community stops caring for these islands. During the fishing season, the fishing cooperatives harvest abalone and lobster according to a sustainability plan managed by a partnership between the fishermen themselves and the government. This agreement wasn’t easy to get to, but both parties saw the value of responsibly managing the region--and that meant leaving catch for the islands’ resident pinnipeds. Moreover, in the 1990s introduced European rabbits were wrecking havoc on the vegetation, threatening many endemic plants. The surrounding community and partners successfully launched and completed an elimination of these nonnative bunnies, thus protecting the integrity of San Benito.
Known as mermaids of the sea, Guadalupe fur seals, elephant seals, harbor seals, and sea lions all gather on Islas San Benito to breed. These pinnipeds can be found frolicking through the dense kelp forests surrounding the islands, attracting tourists and researchers alike, all curious to gain insight into the lives of these waddling creatures. Traditionally hunted for their furs and meat, many of these pinniped populations have recovered. But some of these species are struggling to rebound; like the Guadalupe fur seals, who consider Isla San Benito as an crucially important refuge. However, the changing climate conditions are altering the abundance and location of food sources, with a record number of starving Guadalupe fur seal and seal lion pups washing ashore in 2015.
As climate change continues to progress, understanding how seals survive and adapt is essential for their protection. The role that pinnipeds play in ecosystems is enormous: as top predators, they prey on the sick and weak, while also recycling nutrients within the system. Without these predators, the region will dramatically change--and so will the economies of the local communities. Thus, maintaining collaborations between researchers, governmental agencies, nonprofits and locals to manage fishing, conservation, and tourism is key to preserving Islas San Benito and their pinnipeds.