The Cape fur seal, now officially
called the South African fur seal, is a marine mammal
equally at home on land or in the sea. The adult male
seal is just over 2 m long and has a mass of 200 -
300 kg. Females are much smaller at 1,5 m and weigh
between 50 and 75 kg. The South African fur seal's
range is restricted to islands and the mainland coast
between the rich fishing grounds of northern Namibia
and Algoa Bay on the south-eastern coast of South
Fur seals are so-named for their
thick pelt, unlike true seals which have only a thin
covering of hair. Seal pups have been hunted for
their jet black pelts and for the beautiful
olive-grey coat which they acquire after moulting,
for centuries. The adult's fur is too coarse to be
suitable for use in the fur industry.
South African fur seal numbers are
on the increase and the present world population is
estimated to be approximately 1,5 - 2 million. There
are 25 known breeding localities along the South
African and Namibian coasts, the largest of which is
at Kleinzee near Port Nolloth. There are a further
ten non-breeding colonies. Seals prefer breeding on
rocky ground but do sometimes use flat, sandy
During the breeding season males
are fiercely territorial and will fight viciously to
defend their chosen territories from other males.
Females give birth to a single pup between mid-
November and late December. A carnivore, the seal has
a varied diet which includes pilchards, anchovies,
horse mackerel, hake, snoek, squid, and the
occasional rock lobster. Seals have few natural
predators, among them sharks and killer whales. On
land seal pups are vulnerable to blackbacked jackals
and brown hyenas, to which they occasionally fall
THREATS TO SEALS
Undoubtedly the greatest threat to seals is people.
The alarming increase in plastic and other forms of
pollution in the oceans kills thousands of seals and
other marine animals each year when they are trapped
or injured by plastic strapping, discarded nets and
nylon fishing line.
For the last 370 years seals have
been ruthlessly hunted by humans. In southern Africa
fur seal harvesting is one of the oldest of all
commercial `fisheries'. Uncontrolled exploitation of
the South African fur seal continued into the late
nineteenth century and resulted in a drastic decline
in numbers. In 1893 seals were protected for the
first time and this, together with other laws which
controlled harvesting, has led to an increase in
their numbers. Seals pose a threat to some coastal
bird species such as jackass penguin (see Enviro Fact
"Jackass penguin") and bank cormorants
which are both Red Data Book threatened species -
found only off the southern African coastline - and
Cape gannets. At Mercury Island seals and penguins
compete with one another for space to live and breed.
SEALS AND FISHERMEN
The seals' main food is fish, in fact, seals are the
only animal that competes with the fishing industry
for commercial fish. The dramatic increase in the
seal population in the second half of this century,
and the major expansion of the fishing industry since
the second world war, have led to inevitable
conflict. However, 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. As a result, most
fishermen hate seals, which they regard as robbing
them of their livelihood, therefore many seals are
shot illegally each year from fishing boats.
The killing of seals, to produce goods which can be
sold for money, is a controversial issue hotly
debated by animal lovers, fishermen, and
conservationists. A proposed seal harvesting
operation at Kleinzee, near Port Nolloth, was
temporarily suspended in August 1990 due to local and
international outcry. People objected to what they
saw as the brutal method used to kill the seals. A
blow from a heavy club crushes the head of the seal
pup and a large knife is used to sever the major
arteries. However, many people believe that, when
done correctly, this is the most humane method of
killing seal pups.
Products such as fur coats, gloves
or handbags made from seal pelts, and seal oil and
carcass meal, are regarded as the sustainable use of
the species. However, other factors should be
considered when debating the seal harvesting issue,
e.g. ethical matters such as the method of killing
seals, cruelty and the need for the end products.
Another contentious issue is the shooting of adult
bulls for their genitalia which are sold in the Far
East as a supposed aphrodisiac.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
* Alert any of the organisations listed below should
you come across seals which have been hurt, for
example by fishing gear.
* Pick up litter, especially
fishing tackle and plastic bags, which you find on
the beach as it can injure and kill seals.
SEALS OF THE
J. King, Oxford University Press, 1983.
OCEANS OF LIFE OFF SOUTHERN
AFRICA. A. Payne and R. Crawford (eds) Vlaeberg, Cape Town, 1989.
SECRETS OF THE
Illustrated guide to marine life off southern Africa.
A. Payne and R. Crawford (eds). Vlaeberg Publishers,
Cape Town, 1992.
All books are available from Russel
Friedman Books, PO Box 73, Halfway House 1685. Tel.
Departmant of Environment
Affairs and Tourism: Sea Fisheries Research Institute
P/Bag X2, Roggebaai, Cape Town, 8000. Tel. 021-402
(Southern African National Foundation for the
Conservation of Coastal Birds). PO Box
11-116, Bloubergrant, 7443. Tel. 021-557 6155/6.
Dolphin Action and Protection Group. PO
Box 22227, Fish Hoek, 7975. Tel. 021-82 5845.
SPCA. PO Box 3,
Plumstead, 7800. Tel. 021-705 3757.
Institute (ORI). P O Box 10712, Marine
Parade, 4056. Tel. 031-37 3536.
Natal Parks Board.
P O Box 662, Pietermaritzburg, 3200. Tel. 0331-47