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SASSI

THE CAPE FUR SEAL


The Fur Seal (Arctocephalus pusillus), also known as the Cape Fur Seal, South African Fur Seal and the Australian Fur Seal is a species of fur seal.

Physical description
The Fur Seal has a large broad head and a pointed snout. Males are brown to dark gray with a darker mane and a light underside. They grow up to 2.2m (7ft) and weigh around 200-360 kg (440-800lb). Females are gray to light brown with a dark underside and light throat. They grow up to 1.7m (5ft) and weigh on average 120kg (260lbs). Pups are black at birth but turn gray with a pale throat after molting.

Distribution and habitat
The Fur Seal is found along the coast of Namibia and along the west coast of South Africa to the Cape of Good Hope and the Cape Province. Its Australian subspecies breeds on nine islands in the Bass Strait between Tasmania and Victoria. Both subspecies mostly haul out and breed on rocky islands, rock ledges or reefs and pebble or boulder beaches. However South African Fur Seals have large breeding sites on sandy beaches in South Africa, and a non-breeding group regularly hauls out on a sandy beach in Cape Fria in northern Namibia.

Foraging
Fur Seals feed mostly on bony fish as well as cephalopods, crustaceans and even birds.

Behavior and reproduction
Although Fur Seals normally travel alone, large group of these seals can be seen rafting in kelp beds. Pregnant females will stay 7 weeks away from the land before the breeding season.

Brown Fur Seals breed in mid-October. Unlike many eared seal species, females are free to choose their mate and he is judged based on the value of his territory. Both males and females fight for territories with individuals of the same sex. Females have smaller territories and a male's territory may overlap that of several females. A harem may consist of 50 females for one male.

Pups are usually born between late November and early December. After they are born the females start to mate with their harem leaders. The female spends the next several months foraging at sea and nursing her pup, who is weaned at four months old. The pups begin swimming at an early age and the time they spend in the water increases as the pup learns more. By seven months the pup can swim for two to three days at a time.

The Brown Fur Seal's main predator is the Great white shark. In False Bay, the seals employ a number of anti-predatory strategies while in shark-infested waters such as:

  • Swimming in large groups
  • Low porpoising; to increase sub-surface vigilance
  • Darting in different directions to cause confusion when attacked.
  • It rides near the dorsal fin to keep out of reach of the shark's jaws when attacked.

Human interactions
The Brown Fur Seal is an inquisitive and friendly animal when in the water and will often accompany SCUBA divers. They will swim around divers for periods of several minutes at a time, even at a depth of 60m. On land they are far less relaxed and tend to panic when people come near them.

STATUS
Appendix II on CITES (protected species)

Although Cape Fur Seals have been protected in South Africa since 1893, they were still subject to government run or government authorized commercial harvests to 1990. The Sea Birds and Seals Protection Act of 1973 (SBSPA), provides broad protection for seals in South Africa, but also provides for a harvest if it is deemed desirable. While the conservation and harvesting of seals in Namibia was previously controlled by the SBSPA this has been replaced by the Marine Resources Act (2000) which relaxed restrictions aimed at ensuring a humane harvest.

 

Challenges Facing The Cape Fur Seal

Loss of Habitat
Breeding herds of seals were originally found mainly on the offshore islands around the coast of Southern Africa. Sealing was introduced in the early 17th century, and by the late 1800’s, 23 colonies had been destroyed and the population of these species was exploited to the point where the numbers were heavily depleted. Most of the colonies sought refuge on the mainland. Some of the islands were turned in to breeding colonies for seabirds and seals are still killed should they come close to these breeding colonies. Other islands are empty and no effort has been made to implement a programme where seals are reintroduced to these spaces. Currently only 10% of their natural habitat is being utilized and because of human interference, 80% of pups are now born on the mainland.

The result of the loss of habitat has lead to overcrowding on the little bit of space they do inhabit. The competition for space leads to a high mortality rate as weaker seal, older seals and young pups are crushed or pushed off the rocks; washed off or blown in to the sea. Those who are pushed off, washed off or blown off either drown or are eaten by sharks. Each pupping season (several weeks during summer), hundreds of dead pups can be found washing up on our shores or floating in the water. A handful of “lucky” ones may wash up on beaches, exhausted and/or injured, only to be pestered by humans and dogs. Currently, there are no facilities to help these survivors.

SASSI’s goals:

  • To set up a rescue and rehabilitation center in Southern Africa which would provide much needed help for injured and sick seals.
  • To look in to the practicality of reintroducing breeding colonies to some offshore islands

Fishing Community
Sealing most definitely altered the natural ecological path of seals, and because seals have been “banned” from most of their natural habitat, they have also lost some of their usual “hunting” ground. The Cape Fur seal are notorious scavengers and often steal fish from nets, which doesn’t endear them with the fishing community. With global fish stocks rapidly depleting, competition for food between seal and human is more than often lethal. There is no love lost between the two competitors and seals unfortunately are shot illegally, clubbed and killed by fishermen. Seals are the only animal that competes with the fishing industry for commercial fish. Recent observations from fishing vessels have shown that seals have little effect on either bottom-trawling or purse-seine (for shoaling fish) operations, in contrast with the claims of fishermen. Line fishermen do sometimes lose a large portion of their catch to seals.

Harbours are a source of fast food for seals. Fishermen often dump the innards of cleaned fish overboard, which brings the seals in direct contact with their biggest enemy.

SASSI’s goals:

  • To ban guns at sea
  • To educate the fishing community how to deal with problem animals

Starvation
As mentioned above, fish stocks are rapidly depleting and in Namibia specifically, mass starvation is not uncommon.

Entanglement
Because of the competition between humans and seals for food, and seals trying to “steal” food from nets, these animals easily get entangled in fishing nets. This can cause injury and in most cases, death. Debris in harbours, such as strapping from boxes or rope, can also cause entanglement. The rope and strapping cut deep in to the body of the seals, and because it is not removed, eventually grows in to the skin of the animal. This can cause infection and in a lot of cases the animals are slowly strangled to death. In some cases, the seals flippers are pinned to their body, causing them to drown. Again, there are no programmes in place to prevent littering in harbours, and there are no disentanglement teams which could help these animals.

SASSI’s goals:

  • To create cleaner harbours
  • To set up disentanglement teams
  • To set up a hot line for the public to call in an entanglement

Sealing
Commercial sealing began in Southern Africa in the early 17th century and it was only in 1893 when South Africa introduced restrictions on sealing. None were introduced in Namibia until 1922. The South African government conducted the seal hunts until 1979 after which it was handed over to private concessionaires. Commercial sealing was eventually outlawed in South Africa in 1990.

However, in Namibia, seal pups and adult males are still killed: pups for their luxurious fur, and males (bulls) for their genitalia which is exported to the East as aphrodisiacs. Between July and November each year some 80 000+ seal pups and 8 000+ male adults are killed in a process the Namibian authorities unjustly refer to as an annual "cull". Animals are herded in to a group after which pups are culled with crude wooden clubs and bulls die from a bullet to the head. Pups that are still nursing are killed – their fur is soft and luxurious. Most sealers are seasonal employees picked from the poor and destitute, get paid a pittance and are not trained. Pups are mostly stunned and then cut open (or stabbed in the heart) with a knife. Images of mother's milk running from the noses and mouths of these young animals have stunned the world as have images of mother’s hovering over the bodies of their young.

A cull is a term conservation managers use to "control" a wild population to bring balance into an ecosystem, whereas a harvest has commercial and economic gain. The Cape Fur Seal, already an protected species, is currently dying in large numbers from starvation caused by Namibia’s overfishing. Each year, concessionaires cannot reach the full given quota as there are simply not enough seals to kill. Yet, despite efforts of various activists, organisations and scientists, Namibia refuses to stop this practice. The authorities have on occasion stated that they don’t take kindly to people trying to run their country.

In 2007, a meeting was held with the Namibian Prime Minster, but despite proposals of economic and community based upliftment through seal tourism which would contribute considerably more to the country’s economy than sealing, the leader of Namibia stood fast in his decision to continue the annual seal cull.

Such a scale of mass killing and dying has an adverse effect on the eco-system. The function of a predator is to keep the “lower” species in check, and removing such a predator from its environment can have a domino effect on the eco-system. These effects are almost always negative.

In 2008, the EU released a damning report in which unacceptable cruelty was found in the Namibian seal culling system. It was revealed that methods used in seal hunting in the country are ruthless and have rendered these animals in a very poor welfare.

Countries such as the United States of America, Mexico, Croatia, Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and South Africa have banned the import of Cape fur seal products and recently the EU passed a ban on the import of seal products in to its 27 member states, which would include the Cape fur seal.

There are no independent observers, and no one may witness the cull. Hunting permits are also issued which allows these seals to be hunted with a bow and arrow.

The Namibian Seal cull is the second largest (after Canada) in the world.

SASSI’s goal:

  • To stop the cull and introduce alternative, economically viable, community based programmes

Charity Registration Number - 064890

 
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