Antarctic fur seal

Antarctic fur seal

Arctocephalus gazella

Cape fur seal

Arctocephalus pusillus

Guadalupe fur seal

Guadalupe fur seal

Arctocephalus townsendi

Northern fur seal

Callorhinus ursinus

About fur seals

Fur seals are pinnipeds, like harp seals, but fur seals are members of a different family classification: Otariidae. The Otariidae are eared seals, whereas harp seals are true seals and do not have external ears.

Seal species in the family Otariidae include the Cape fur seal (also referred to as the brown fur seal), California sea lion, Stellar sea lion, Antarctic fur seal, northern fur seals, Guadalupe fur seal, and southern fur seal. Fur seals have long gestation periods, generally almost a year. While breeding and nursing their young, they live in large colonies on beaches or rocky outcroppings. The rest of the time is spent mostly out at sea.

Cape Cross fur seal colony

Cape Cross fur seal colony Photo: Betty, NYC

Cape fur seals are the largest fur seals. Males weigh up to 300 kg and females up to 120 kg. Cape fur seal seal pups are born between late October and early January. Most are born in December. The mother seals nurse their young for about 10 months to a year; sometimes even longer. Cape fur seals mate just days after the mothers give birth to the pup conceived in the previous year. The mothers alternate between nursing their pups for several days and then leaving them for several days to feed at sea. When they return to the rookery, they find their own pups by calling out to them, recognizing their pups by vocalizations and/or smell.

Cape fur seals eat a variety of fish, including Cape hake, horse mackerel, pelagic goby, pilchards, and anchovy. They also consume squid, rock lobster, shrimp, and prawns. Occasionally they even eat birds.

There are two subspecies of brown fur seals: the South African subspecies, found mostly off the coast of Namibia and South Africa, and the Australian subspecies. Cape fur seals are slaughtered by Namibian clubbers; South Africa has prohibited the slaughter of these seals since 1990. Australia does not permit the killing of Cape fur seals; however, some fishermen have killed them in violation of the law.

Conservation

Cape fur seals are listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as a threatened species (Appendix II – “Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.”).

Dead Cape fur seal pups

Dead Cape fur seal pups

Cape fur seals have been hard-hit already by several mass die-offs in which tens of thousands of seal pups and thousands of adult seals starved to death. In recent years, tourists and locals have reported and photographed hundreds of starving and dying Cape fur seal pups along the Namibian and South African coast. The Namibian government has tried to placate concerned citizens, claiming that this is normal.

In addition to the annual slaughter in Namibia, Cape fur seals face many other threats. These seals are threatened by loss of former habitats. They were forcibly removed from island rookeries by South Africa and forced to utilize small rocky islands with insufficient barriers to large Cape waves and stormy seas. When the Cape fur seal pups are born, they, like harp seal pups, cannot swim. The storms, with their high winds and large waves, wash seal pups off these rocks and into the sea, where they drown by the tens of thousands each year.

Francois Hugo, of Seal Alert, has proposed to bring seals back to their former breeding islands by establishing small colonies with rescued seals. He believes that this is the only way to get the seals to return. The South African government is, at this point, cooperating with Francois and allowing him to put his plan into effect on part of the seals’ historic range.

Cape fur seals are also threatened by fishermen in several ways. Though South African laws prohibit the killing of seals and prohibit the transport of firearms on fishing boats (which would be used only to kill seals), the government of South Africa has yet to ban firearm possession by fishermen. Hence, tens of thousands of fishermen go to sea with firearms, killing seals each day.

The seals suffer malnutrition and starvation from reduced fish populations due to over-fishing and destructive fishing practices, as well as due to climate phenomena such as the Benguela Niño. They are also threatened by entanglement in fishing nets. Seal mortality for just one of thirteen sectors of the Namibian fishing industry (the trawler fleets) has been estimated at 60,000 seals annually.

Although Namibia is considered to have well-developed systems in place for fisheries management, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), certain fisheries are considered to be over-exploited, including those of Cape hake and deep sea red crab. The Cape horse mackerel are considered to be fully exploited, even though the stock status is uncertain.

These management systems only regulate legally-caught fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. A bigger problem than management protocols is the failure to curtail illegal fishing. An article by the Center for Public Integrity, “Spain’s hake appetite threatens Namibia’s most valuable fish,” explains in detail the corruption in the Namibian government and collusion with Spain and its fishing magnates that has lead to devastation for the hake population in waters off the Namibian coast. Government representatives have stated that conserving hake for the benefit of the fisheries is the motivation for killing Cape fur seals. However, representatives have recently avoided labeling the slaughter a ‘cull’, insisting that it is a managed harvest of a ‘natural resource’.

Despite the many threats to the survival of Cape fur seals, Namibia quadrupled the kill quotas from the 1990’s: In 1996, the seal quota was 20,500. In 2006, it was 91,000. In recent years, the quota has been 80,000 seal pups and 6,000 bulls.