The sealing industry, concentrated in the waters off the south-eastern corner of the Australian continent, was a boom and bust affair that began just before the turn of the nineteenth century and had collapsed within 30 years because seal stocks had been exhausted. While elephant seal and Australian sea lion populations in the area never recovered from the impact of hunting, the fur seal has slowly hauled itself back from the brink of extinction and is a rare example of a species recovery being facilitated by the introduction of protective measures.
Seal numbers had dwindled to such a point in the early 1920s that they became the first marine mammal in Australia to be protected and despite now being wholly protected, they are still the world's fourth rarest seal species. Contrary to sensationalist media reports, seal numbers have not exploded. Their recovery has been a slow process with numbers probably less than half of what they were at the end of the eighteenth century. Recently there have been calls for seals to be culled because of a perception that they are a threat to the region's fisheries.
There is a popular misconception that they eat 'twice their weight' in fish per day. They actually consume less than 10% of their body weight in fish, squid, octopus and cuttlefish. The claim that reducing seal numbers will boost fish stocks is also dubious. In fact, it may be detrimental to fish stocks. Taking out a top predator in an ecosystem puts the entire system at risk of collapse (eg. the decline in shark numbers off the coast of Mexico and the rise of the Humboldt squid).
Australian fur seal colonies are restricted to a number of rocky outcrops and islands and while females will stay close to these breeding sites, males are more widely distributed and often come into contact with people. This contact is rarely beneficial to the seals.
In Victoria's Port Phillip Bay, it is the resident population of bottlenose dolphins that are the stars of the show in a burgeoning eco-tourism industry and they have become a symbol of the Bay's robust health, but the seals that haul-out on various navigational structures and a purpose-built platform are not held with nearly as much regard and with downright contempt and open hostility by some.
Swimming with seals has become a very popular activity. While interacting with the dolphins is highly regulated, the seals do not receive anywhere near the same level of protection or monitoring of people's behavior around them despite being far more heavily visited. Over the summer period at one bachelor haul-out site of around 50 animals, it is not uncommon for people to be in the water with them for the whole day, sometimes there are more swimmers in the water than there are seals at the haul-out site. The seals have become quite accustomed to the attention and are remarkably gracious hosts to the thousands of visitors they receive every summer.
Seals are, however, very susceptible to the trappings of human ignorance, greed, excess and carelessness. In a disturbing trend, we are witnessing more and more seal deaths and injuries as a direct consequence of human involvement. Toxic pollutants, boat propellers and plastic bags are some of the causes, but the most pressing issue is entanglement in discarded fishing gear and injuries sustained from deliberate acts of human violence.
Recreational fishing is a popular pursuit on the waters of the Bay. Millions of dollars are spent annually on increasing access and infrastructure. Three and a half million people live around the
Bay's shoreline. People and seals are going to come into contact with each other more frequently and it is important that there is a greater awareness of how our activities impinge on the seals' lives.
Seals are easily conditioned, so people feeding seals is bound to result in negative outcomes with the animals either swallowing hooks, ingesting inappropriate feed or incurring the wrath of fishermen not wanting to share their catch. It is also essential that people gain an awareness of the threats to seals that plastic bags and discarded fishing gear pose. When something is thrown away, this is where away often is.
Polperro would like to conduct a PR campaign to educate people about Port Phillip Bay's Australian fur seals. Any funds obtained would be used to produce educational material which would be distributed to schools, recreational fishing and boating bodies and the general public.