Spotted Seal, Phoca largha

The spotted seal (Phoca largha or Phoca vitulina largha), also known as the largha seal or simply the largha, is a “true seal” in the family Phocidae. It is native to northern areas of the Pacific Ocean and neighboring seas, preferring to reside on sea ice. Its range includes the continental shelf of the Okhotsk and Bering Seas, Chukchi, and Beaufort. Its southern range extends to the Yellow Sea. When it migrates, it can be found in the Sea of Japan and northern Huanghai. During the breeding season, when ice is not found in its native range, in can be found in Alaska, from southeastern Bristol Bay to Demarcation Point. Here it can be mistaken for the harbor seal, which shares its range.

The spotted seal can reach an average body length between 4.6 and 6.9 feet, with a weight between 180 and 240 pounds. Its face is narrow and the nose resembles that of a dog. Its fur can vary in color from silver white to gray and holds many darker spots, which occur along the entire body. The body is relatively small for seal species, and the flippers are short. Although there is not much information about the vocalizations of this species, it is known to produce barks, moans, growls, and roars.

The spotted seal is both solitary and social, forming groups during the molting season, when pups are raised. The seals can be found laying out on pack ice, ice floes, and on the shore during this time. The breeding season for this species occurs between the months of January to April. It is thought that these seals form groups each year with one male, female, and the pups that the couple produces. After ten months of pregnancy, the pups are born averaging a weight of around twenty-six pounds per newborn. After six weeks of age, the pups are weaned, but sexual maturity is not reached until about four years of age.

The diet of the spotted seal varies depending upon the age of each seal. Young seals feed on smaller crustaceans and krill, while adults consume various types of fish including pollock, arctic cod, capelin, and herring. The average lifespan of this species is about twenty-five years, but some individuals have lived to be thirty-five years of age.

There are three main populations of the spotted seal, which are separated by location. These are the Bering Sea population, which holds about 100,000 individuals, the population that occurs in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk, which also holds about 100,000 individuals, and the population that occurs in Peter the Great Bay, Russia and Liaodong Bay, China that holds only 3,300 individuals. There is also one population that occurs on the shores of Baekryeong Island, which is located north of the western coast of South Korea, but this population only holds 300 individuals.

In 2008, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began a study to determine if species of ice seals on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) should remain on that list, but found that the two largest populations of the spotted seal did not need to be listed as Endangered. The main threats to this species, and many other species that depend on ice habitats, is ice reduction caused by global warming. The spotted seal population in North Korea has been designated as a second-class endangered species and the Natural Monument No. 331. Seals in this population migrate to Dalian, China to breed each year, but they are hunted in this area for Chinese medicine practices. Green Korea United, a North Korean activist group, is working closely with the Chinese government to stop the poaching that occurs during the breeding season of these seals. The spotted seal appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Data Deficient.”

Image Caption: Phoca largha taken at Alaska, Bering Sea. Credit: Captain Budd Christman/Wikipedia