The spotted seal is found in northern and western coastal areas and the islands of the North Pacific Ocean in three main population groups, one group in the Bering Sea numbering some 100,000, and another in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk with a similar number. In China, they live along the coasts of the Bohai Sea and Yellow Sea, the only pinniped species (mammals that have front and rear flippers) to breed in China’s coastal waters. They are an arctic and sub-arctic species that live on the edges of sea ice floes in winter and open waters in the summer months.
In October, they return to Liaodong Bay in the Bohai Sea, and the females give birth on ice floes the following January and February. In March, when the ice melts, seals search for food in the nearby waters and along the shore. The breeding ground near the mouth of the Liao River in the northern part of Liaodong Bay has become a gathering area for spotted seals. They rest on the mudflats, and the pups, born with white fur, shed this when they are weaned at two to four weeks for their waterproof adult fur, which is silvery gray. In May, they migrate for the summer to Baengnyeong-do Island, a major habitat in South Korea.
Spotted seals spend most of their lives at sea, only visiting ice floes and land to breed, wean, shed their fur or rest. They are highly alert to danger, so are rarely seen, except by local fishers, who call them “sea dogs” due to their dog-like snouts.
A local fisher surnamed Liu has been fishing around the mouth of the Liao River since 1961. “When the ship set sail, you’d see the beach was full of seals,” he told NewsChina. “Many big fish jumped out of the water on both sides of the ship, and the seals could catch them easily.” But over time, Liu noticed the spotted seal colony was dwindling. There had been uncontrolled hunting for their fur used to make coats, oil used for making soap or healing burns, and penises which were used as an aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese medicine.
Wang Pilie, one of the first scientists in China to study spotted seals, collected data on the sharp population decline in 1990. In the early 1930s, there were around 7,100 spotted seals, reaching a peak of about 8,137 in 1940. By 1979, their number had dropped to 1,908. Wang was also one of the first to call for a protected seal reserve in the early 1990s.
Zhang Wei from Dalian Spotted Seal National Nature Reserve Administration told NewsChina there were initially two plans, one that included the entire Liaodong Bay, and the other to establish smaller reserves north and south of the bay.
Wang’s research found the northern part of Liaodong Bay, especially the area at the mouth of the Liao River, is where the seals breed. The southern part is the main area where seals are hunted. Fishers in Lüshun have a history of hunting spotted seals, and in the 1960s, they killed around 400 to 500 spotted seals every year.
Zhang said that because the sea ice from February to March in north Liaodong Bay forms a natural protective barrier from humans, the southern part became a protected reserve in 1992 as hunting in that area was a serious problem.
Han Jiabo, a researcher and former president of the Liaoning Marine Fisheries Research Institute told NewsChina that the reserve does not include the breeding zone, although it needs protecting the most. Instead, it only covers areas where the seals rest and their migration routes. This means the reserve was not fit for purpose from the start.
The original demarcated Dalian Spotted Seal Reserve included the western coast and sea areas of Dalian and over 70 islands, an area of 909,000 hectares. Zhang Wei told NewsChina that since the coast was sparsely populated, it was all included in the reserve. Dalian Fisheries Bureau surveyed less than 1,000 spotted seals in the sea area, and as a result Dalian Spotted Seal Reserve was upgraded to a national reserve in 1997.
In February 2021, the spotted seal was upgraded from a second-class to first-class national protected species.