Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
Northern elephant seals are a huge attraction for tourists to the Año Nuevo State Reserve in California. Here visitors can watch these magnificent animals from a safe distance, during breeding season. Northern elephant seals were once hunted for their blubber, which was refined to use as oil.
Elephant seals are the only known animals capable of filling collapsed lungs. Their lungs collapse during dives. The surfactant/lubricant responsible for this ability is being researched at the Scripps Institute in San Diego for the potential benefit to premature humans with immature lungs.
Northern elephant seals have also been used in research related to the effect of weightlessness on bone density because they spend 90% of their time in a neutrally buoyant environment. NASA has used this research in their efforts to counteract the effect of weightlessnes on bone density in astronauts.
Because northern elephant seals can dive to extreme depths it has been suggested that they can greatly aid human efforts to explore and map the deep oceans once instruments that can withstand extreme pressures are developed. (Hill, 1996)