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 Africa.

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 beaches.

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 prey.


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.


SEAL HARVESTING

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.


FURTHER READING

SEALS OF THE WORLD. 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 SEAS. 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. 011-7022300/1.


USEFUL CONTACTS

Departmant of Environment Affairs and Tourism: Sea Fisheries Research Institute P/Bag X2, Roggebaai, Cape Town, 8000. Tel. 021-402 3911

SANCCOB (Southern African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds). PO Box 11-116, Bloubergrant, 7443. Tel. 021-557 6155/6.

The 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.

Oceanographic Research 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 1961.


Created and maintained by: Jocelyn Collins
Last Updated: Thursday, February 01, 2001