Public advised not to approach wandering seals

01 November 2021 | Ministries

The Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources cautioned the public against approaching wandering seals in public places or on the beach. This comes after seals have been spotted at various areas in coastal towns recently.

The ministry said that seals gather at specific spots along the coast (breeding colonies) to breed and mate during late spring and in early summer (November to February). They may be found anywhere on the beach resting. Some may appear disturbed, starved or weak. Pups may appear lost. The cow (mother) may relocate it and it is best that it is not disturbed or displaced.

According to the ministry, the presence of random seal carcasses should also not be cause for any alarm. The ministry said that it monitors the condition of seals and their behaviour as part of its management program, with any abnormality given attention.
The ministry advised the public to refrain from approaching or disturbing such seals. If necessary, the public can contact Lavinia Nghimwatya at 064 410 1000/1218 or at [email protected]

South African situation

Marine biologists from Sea Search and non-government organisations have also called on the public to report sightings of dead seals to the Seafari app, the I-Naturalist app or to regional stranding networks in light of the ongoing seal die-off along the west coast of South Africa.

“We urge the public to keep dogs on leads when they encounter dead or sick seals on the beach, and to maintain a safe distance. Seals are wild animals and protected by law. Do not attempt to approach or pick up sick seals, as they are strong and may bite out of fear,” Dr Tess Gridley, co-director of Sea Search and a lecturer in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University, warned.

Since the first die-offs were reported early in September, Sea Search has been playing a key role in co-ordinating data collection and response. According to Dr Gridley, this time of the year is normally a period of high energy demand for Cape fur seals, and it is not abnormal for some animals to not survive. “Yearlings are now forced to fully wean and leave their mothers. Females are heavily pregnant, with pupping due to start in earnest in mid-November. Combined with strong south-easterly winds, we often see high numbers of dead youngsters on our beaches.”

However, after being involved in the die-off of seals at their field site in Namibia last year, they were alerted to several reports of higher-than-normal mortalities of Cape fur seals at Paternoster, Shelly Beach and Elands Bay along the west coast of South Africa on 11 and 12 September 2021. “Since then, reports of abnormally high numbers of mortalities around the West Coast in particular kept streaming in, with deaths ranging from pre-term pups to adult females and sub-adult males. Cape fur seal populations are well-known to ‘boom or bust’ – and die-offs are not uncommon. Yet we are faced with a dynamic and rapidly changing environment. We believe it is worthwhile to document and investigate the cause of events such as this one, where it could be an indication of the underlying health of the marine ecosystem. In addition to the unhealthy seals, we also have an ongoing avian influenza epidemic,” she explained.

Currently there is thought to be no link between the two events. “It could also be that better monitoring of birds along the coastline has increased vigilance of the health and well-being of seal populations as well,” Dr Gridley said.

In the mean time they have collected samples on behalf of the SA department of forestry, fisheries and the environment (DFFE) to be analysed at the state veterinarian to establish what might be the underlying cause of this mortality event. “Currently all indications are that the animals are thin and lacking in food resources, at a critical time in their life cycle,” she concluded.

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