Southern Elephant Seals (Mirounga leonina) in the Galapagos Islands and the Eastern Tropical Pacific Amid Ocean Environmental Changes: Towards a Habitat Suitability Index

Published in Aquatic Mammals | September 12, 2022

The southern elephant seal (SES; Mirounga leonina) is the largest, sexually dimorphic pinniped species in the global ocean (Le Boeuf & Laws, 1994; Hindell, 2018). The distinctive feature for males is the proboscis; the maximum development of this feature occurs in adults over 10 years of age (Sanvito et al., 2007). The growth of females ceases after they reach maturity (i.e., ~5 y of age) at a body length of ~2.5 m and 400 to 600 kg body weight (Fedak et al., 1994). Adult males are physiological and socially mature after ~7 years of age when they reach up to 5 m body length and weigh 3,000 kg (Campagna & Lewis, 1992; Pistorius et al., 2005; Hindell, 2018). They are distributed throughout the circumpolar region, sub-Antarctic waters, and Antarctic ecosystems of the Southern Hemisphere (Hofmeyr, 2015; Jefferson et al., 2015; Hindell, 2018). Four genetically different populations are currently recognized, including subpopulations from Peninsula Valdés and the Falkland Islands, the Atlantic sector (South Georgia, South Orkney Islands, South Shetland Islands, and Bouvetøya and Gough Islands), the Indian sector (Iles Kerguelen, Iles Crozet, Heard Island, and the Prince Edward Islands), and the Pacific sector (Macquarie Island, Campbell Island, and Antipodes Island) (Slade et al., 1998; Hofmeyr, 2015; Jefferson et al., 2015; Corrigan et al., 2016). The Atlantic populations, including South Georgia, Peninsula Valdés, and the Kerguelen Islands, are either currently stable or increasing slightly (Hindell et al., 2016), while the populations on Macquarie Island in the South Pacific are declining (van den Hoff et al., 2014; Hofmeyr, 2015).While the SES is currently classified as “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species (Hofmeyr, 2015), this pinniped species is affected by several anthropogenic threats such as bycatch, chemical and biological pollution, and human-induced environmental changes (Hofmeyr, 2015; Alava & Aurioles-Gamboa, 2017; Hindell, 2018).

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In 2022, the Galapagos Science Center (GSC) and the broader UNC & USFQ Galapagos Initiative will celebrate its 10th Anniversary. We are proud to announce the World Summit on Island Sustainability scheduled to be held on June 26–30, 2022 at the Galapagos Science Center and the Community Convention Center on San Cristobal Island.

The content of the World Summit will be distributed globally through social media and results documented through papers published in a book written as part of the Galapagos Book Series by Springer Nature and edited by Steve Walsh (UNC) & Carlos Mena (USFQ) as well as Jill Stewart (UNC) and Juan Pablo Muñoz (GSC/USC). The book will be inclusive and accessible by the broader island community including scientists, managers, residents, tourists, and government and non-government organizations.

While the most obvious goal of organizing the World Summit on Island Sustainability is to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the GSC and the UNC-USFQ Galapagos Initiative, other goals will be addressed through special opportunities created as part of our operational planning of the World Summit.

For instance, we seek to elevate and highlight the Galapagos in the island conservation discourse, seeking to interact with other island networks in more obvious and conspicuous ways to benefit the Galapagos Islands, the UNC-USFQ Galapagos Initiative, and the world. We will seize the opportunity to further develop the I2N2 – International Islands Network-of-Networks. Further, we wish to highlight and emphasize multiple visions of a sustainable future for the Galapagos Islands and we cannot do this alone. Therefore, engaging the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Tourism, the Government Council of Galapagos, the Galapagos National Park, and local Galapagos authorities, including government and non-government organizations and local citizen groups, is imperative.

The Galapagos Science Center on San Cristobal Island, Galapagos

Borrowing from Hawaii’s and Guam’s Green Growth Program and the Global Island Partnership, we wish to examine existing global programs that emphasize island sustainability and their incorporation into life, policies, and circumstances in the Galapagos Islands. We will also seek to enhance our connections with the institutional members of our International Galapagos Science Consortium and expand the Consortium through the recruitment of other member institutions. We will also work to benefit islands and their local communities by working with citizen groups as well as important NGOs who seek to improve the natural conditions in the Galapagos and diminish the impact of the human dimension on the future of Galapagos’ ecosystems.

Lastly, we will use the World Summit to benefit UNC & USFQ and our constituencies through a strong and vibrant communication plan about the World Summit, creating corporate relationships as sponsors, identifying funding goals through donors, and benefiting our study abroad program for student engagement in the Galapagos Islands. We plan to develop and issue a Galapagos Sustainability Communique after the World Summit that includes the vision and insights of all its participants for a sustainable Galapagos with applicability to global island settings.

We are eager to hear your perspective and have you join us at the World Summit on Island Sustainability!