New Zealand fur seal/kekeno

Population: about 200,000, half of which are in Australia.
Threat status: least concern (population trend: increasing).
Found on: rocky shores throughout mainland New Zealand, the Chatham Islands, and the Subantarctic islands, as well as parts of Australia.

Fur seal pup. Photo: Katherine Clements.
The fur seal population has been growing steadily since its protection in 1978

Did you know:

  • New Zealand fur seal/kekeno are the most common seals in New Zealand waters.
  • They are very good swimmers and weaned pups will sometimes travel great distances. A fur seal pup tagged on the South Island's West Coast has even been recorded in Australia!
  • On land they sometimes become disoriented and have been found in unusual places such as back-yards, drains and streets!

Once at the brink of extinction

Before the arrival of humans a population of about 2 million fur seal/kekeno inhabited New Zealand. They were taken as food by Māori, and the onset of European sealing for meat and pelts in the 1700s and 1800s pushed them to the brink of extinction.

Fur seal. Photo: Katherine Clements.
Once at the brink of extinction, kekeno are now making a recovery

On the way to recovery

In 1978 fur seal/kekeno were fully protected by the Marine Mammals Protection Act, and they have continued to grow in numbers ever since. Research in Otago has shown a population increase of 25% per year between 1982 and 1994. Surveys in 1995 indicated this was continuing.

A similar rate of increase has been noted in the Nelson/Marlborough region and also in the sub-Antarctic Bounty Islands. Since 1991, fur seals have recommenced breeding on the North Island. In Australia population increases may range from 16 to 19% per year.

Although there are no estimates of population growth available for Southland, a nationwide survey in the 1970's showed fur seals in Southland accounted for over 40% of the total New Zealand population or 70% if the Subantarctic islands are included.

West Coast South Island population in decline

Although fur seals/kekeno are recovering in most of the country, a decline has been recorded in some colonies on the West Coast of the South Island. One of the possible reasons for this is the ongoing accidental capture of mature females in the winter fishery for spawning hoki.

Read about what DOC is doing to help West Coast fur seal/kekeno and find out how you can help.

Fur seal resting on rocks. Photo: Stefan Marks (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
New Zealand fur seals/kekeno are the most common seals found in New Zealand waters

Features

Fur seals and sea lions are distinguished from other seals by their external ear flaps and hind flippers which rotate forward, allowing them to move quickly on land.

New Zealand fur seals can be distinguished from sea lions by their pointy nose and smaller size. In New Zealand, fur seals also tend to be found on Rocky shorelines, whereas sea lions prefer sandy beaches.

This pointy-nosed seal has long pale whiskers and a body covered with two layers of fur. Their coat is dark grey-brown on the back, and lighter below; when wet kekeno look almost black. In some animals the longer upper hairs have white tips which give the animal a silvery appearance.

Adult females: maximum length 1.5 m, weight 30-50 kg.
Adult males: maximum length 2.5 m, weight 90-150 kg.

NZ sea lion and NZ fur seal. Photo: J.L. Kendrick.
A New Zealand sea lion is pictured on the left, and a New Zealand fur seal/kekeno pictured on the right

Facts about New Zealand fur seals/kekeno

Range

New Zealand fur seal. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
This pointy-nosed seal has long pale whiskers and a body covered with two layers of fur

In New Zealand fur seals are found on rocky shores around the mainland, Chatham Islands and the Subantarctic islands (including Macquarie Island). They are also found much further afield in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. 

Breeding colonies occur as far north as the Coromandel peninsula and as far south as the Subantarctic islands. They are even seen north of Auckland on occasion.

Diet and foraging

The New Zealand fur seal/kekeno feed mainly on squid and small mid-water fish but also take larger species such as conger eels, barracuda, jack mackerel and hoki, mostly off the continental shelf.

They dive deeper and longer than any other fur seal. Female fur seals on the West Coast are known to (occasionally) dive deeper than 238 m, and for as long as 11 minutes.

Fur seal underwater. Photo: Ryan Paddy. DOC USE ONLY.
New Zealand fur seal foraging underwater

New Zealand fur seals’ dive patterns reflect the movement patterns of their prey

Off Otago, New Zealand fur seal’s prey stay very deep underwater during the day, and then come closer to the surface at night. Here, fur seals feed almost exclusively at night, when prey is closer to the surface, as deep as 163 m during summer.

Their summer foraging is concentrated over the continental shelf, or near the slope. They will dive continuously from sundown to sunrise.

In autumn and winter, they dive much deeper with many dives greater than 100 m. At least some females dive deeper than 240 m, and from satellite tracking they may forage up to 200 km beyond the continental slope in water deeper than 1000 m.

Life history

New Zealand fur seal/kekeno spend a lot of their time on rocky shores, at sites called haul-outs. Every year, these sociable animals return to the same area for the breeding season.

Their haul out sites can get noisy! Fur seals make calls for many reasons. For example, males use vocalizations during threat displays, and females and pups often vocalize when trying to find each other after a foraging trip.

Sound clip

Listen to this 30 second clip of New Zealand fur seals on the Razorback, north-east coast of Stephens Island (MP3, 736K).

This clip is of a group of seals resting on rocks, or swimming close by, competing for resting spaces and occassionally calling.

New Zealand fur seal. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
Kekeno spend a lot of their time on rocky shores, at sites called haul-outs. Every year, these sociable animals return to the same area for the breeding season.

Lifespan

On average, they live 14 to 17 years.

New Zealand fur seal sleeping. Photo: © Sabine Bernart.
Kekeno sleeping onshore

Maturity

Females will have their pup between 4 and 6 years of age, and continue giving birth to a single pup every year until their death.

Males are sexually mature at 5 to 6 years, but are unlikely to be socially mature (able to hold a territory and sire pups) for at least another 3 years.

The breeding season

The breeding season takes place from mid-November to mid-January. During this time, seals mate and females give birth to their pups.

Dominant bulls put on displays of glaring and posturing and fighting with other males just prior to the breeding season to gain territories. Fur seals are polygamous breeders; this means that a male may mate with many females in a single breeding season.

Females mate 6 to 8 days after the birth of their pup, even before their first foraging trip. To ensure that the next pup is born during the warm summer months next year and not while she is still taking care of her current pup, fur seals use a method called delayed implantation. Delayed implantation means the egg is fertilised, but does not implant in the uterine wall for another 3 months. Gestation is therefore about 9 months, even though the female is mated 12 months before she gives birth.

New Zealand fur seal pups. Photo: Katherine Clements.
Females will leave their pups alone for periods up to 20 days while they forage

From pup to sea lion

Pups are suckled for about 300 days, though some will continue to suckle into their second year.

Females alternate foraging trips (periods of 1 - 20 days at sea) to feed, with attendance periods (1 - 2 days), where they are at the rookery to suckle the pup. As the year goes on and the pups grow, the females take longer and longer foraging trips.

Pups start to feed on solid food before weaning and spend a large proportion of time playing with other pups and objects such as seaweed and reef fish. It is possible that they attain skills for later life (such as foraging, anti-predator behaviour and also social behaviour) during this period.

During spring most pups are weaned and disperse. Juvenile fur seals have been found over 1000 km away from their place of birth!

New Zealand fur seal nursing her pup.
A New Zealand fur seal nursing her pup

Follow the journey of NZ sea lion pups from birth to weaning with kekeno postcards

In from the cold – winter (PDF, 311K)
Taking the plunge – spring (PDF, 270K)
On the beach – summer (PDF, 305K)

Threats

Human impacts

Human activities are the cause of most threats to kekeno today. It is known that fur seals are incidentally captured and subsequently drown during trawling and long line fishing operations in New Zealand.

Fur seal with plastic wrapped around its neck, Kina Penisula, Tasman. Photo: Dirk de Vries (DOC USE ONLY).
Fur seal with plastic wrapped around its
neck, Kina Peninsula, Tasman

The West Coast hoki trawl fishery’s impact on fur seals is the most well understood. Fur seals become entangled in the nets as they are dragged through the water. Devices that block seals from entering these nets, while allowing target species in, are currently being tested by DOC.

Further threats caused by humans include the entanglement in marine debris and harassment by the public.

Great white and sevengill sharks are the main natural predators of seals. New Zealand sea lions may occasionally take juvenile fur seals in the sub-Antarctic islands but this has not been reported in mainland New Zealand. Killer whales (orcas) and leopard seals may also prey on kekeno.

DOC ranger taking photos for research. Photo: © Sabine Bernert.
DOC ranger taking photos of kekeno for research

DOC's work

Read stories about DOC's work

Research

Population monitoring research by DOC occurs at three West Coast colonies. In addition, work on the foraging behaviour of female fur seals is being investigated at one of the West Coast colonies, Cape Foulwind, along with the colony at Ohau Point, Kaikoura.

New Zealand fur seal, Otago. Photo: Sam O'Leary.
New Zealand fur seal, Otago

The impacts of tourism are being investigated at three key sites: Tonga Island, Kaikoura, Banks Peninsula, and Whakatane.

One of the main threats for this species is incidental take in fisheries and DOC is aiming to minimise fishing related mortality, particularly in offshore trawl fisheries. DOC has commissioned the development and trial of a seal exclusion device (SED) in the hoki fishery, a device that works by physically separating the catch from the animal to be excluded using a steel grid and providing a escape hole on the top side of the trawl net. However, currently the uptake of such mitigation devices in the fishery remains very low.

DOC’s work related to the fishing impacts on fur seals is undertaken within its Conservation Services Programme.

You can help

Take care when in the vicinity of seals and sea lions. Although very charismatic, they are wild animals and should be treated with respect.

Follow the kekeno Care Code

The seal deal: caring for kekeno together (PDF, 520K)

In general seals and sea lions should be enjoyed from a distance without interference. Even if you think a seal needs help, never handle a fur seal yourself as they can act unpredictably and carry disease. You might also unintentionally cause stress to the animal.

  • Always stay at least 20 m from seals. Allow them space if they are active.
  • Do not disturb seals. Don’t make loud noises or throw objects in their vicinity.
  • Always keep dogs and small children under control and away from seals.
  • Never attempt to touch or handle a seal. They can be aggressive if threatened.
  • You can also catch diseases from seals through their skin, sneezes, coughs and barks, and you may also carry diseases that can transfer to them and make them ill.
  • Do not feed any seal.

When to call DOC

Fur seal resting. Photo: © Shellie Evans.
Fur seals may look sick when they're actually just resting

Do you think you’ve seen a fur seal that’s sick or in distress? Oftentimes fur seals may look in distress, but are really just exhibiting normal behaviour.

The following is normal behaviour for kekeno:

  • regurgitating, sneezing or coughing
  • "crying" - these are natural moisture secretions
  • a young seal spending time away from its mother
  • drifting in the waves
  • flapping its flippers in the air as if stranded
  • immobile
  • fighting.

DOC HOTline (0800 362 468).
Call the DOC HOTline if you see a New Zealand sea lion that needs assistance

Call the DOC hotline (0800 362 468) if you see a kekeno that is:

  • severely injured
  • entangled in marine debris
  • being harassed by people or dogs.

They have experienced staff who will respond if this is necessary. When taking your call they will need the following information:

  • location of the seal and how to get to it
  • the species of seal, or a description of what it looks like
  • what is wrong with the seal
  • tidal state
  • local weather and sea conditions.

You may be asked to stay with the animal until help arrives, or to give a phone number so you can be contacted again if the animal cannot be found.

Seals sometimes turn up in unexpected places. They usually move on but in some cases they may need help. Call the DOC hotline, they will know what to do. You cannot keep a fur seal. Possessing any seal without a permit is illegal.

New Zealand fur seal. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
Although they are very charismatic, fur seals are wild animals and should be treated with respect. Enjoy watching them from a distance, and don't disturb them.

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Contacts

DOC 24 hour emergency hotline:
0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468)

Phone to report:

Seals severely injured, entangled, or being harassed by people or dogs
Whale or dolphin strandings
Sick or injured wildlife

For other enquiries, contact your nearest DOC office