Following a series of fatal dog attacks on protected New Zealand fur seals/kekeno on Coastal Otago beaches recently, the Department of Conservation (DOC) and Dunedin City Council (DCC) remind dog owners to control their dogs around seals.
Young fur seals are a common sight on our beaches and shoreline at this time of year. They are many newly weaned seal pups and juveniles aged nine to 10 months. They have left their mothers and come ashore as they strike out on their own.
New Zealand fur seal at Sandymount
The biggest threats to seals are humans and dogs. DOC Conservation Services Manager for Coastal Otago David Agnew said, “These young seals are very vulnerable to dog attacks. It’s essential that dog owners keep their dogs under control (and even better on a leash) when there’s a seal on the beach.”
“The majority of dog owners are doing the right thing, but they have to pay the price for the minority who are not being responsible.” David said.
“We remind people that it’s an offence under the Marine Mammals Protection Act to disturb, harass, harm, injure or kill a seal. A dog owner whose dog attacks a seal could face prosecution.”
Anyone charged under the Marine Mammals Act with harassing, disturbing, injuring or killing a seal faces a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment or a fine to a maximum of $250,000.
DOC is grateful to members of the public who phone the DOC hotline about any injured seal. “The majority of these seals are healthy but we want to know straight away if a seal is badly injured, tangled in netting or being harassed by dogs or people,” David said.
Other Otago wildlife such as yellow-eyed and little penguins are also vulnerable to dog attacks. “We encourage people to watch and enjoy our fascinating wildlife but please ensure they are kept safe for everyone to enjoy,” says David.
DCC is the agency that oversees compliance with dog control bylaws. Senior DCC Animal Services officer Peter Hanlin said it is the responsibility of owners to keep their dog under control at all times. He urged people to report dogs that aren’t under control to the DCC.
How to watch seals safely
- Always keep dogs on a leash and under your control when around seals.
- Always stay at least 20 m away from seals.
- Ensure you keep small children at a safe distance and under your control when watching seals.
- Do not disturb seals. Don't make loud noises or throw things at them.
- Do not feed seals. They don’t need the food and won’t eat it. It also encourages them to approach people which can put people and the seal at risk.
- Do not get between a seal and the sea.
Risks posed by seals
- Seals can and do bite. They have sharp teeth, and incredibly strong jaws which are three times as strong as an average dog.
- They are surprisingly agile on land and can move very quickly if startled.
- Never attempt to touch or handle a seal. They can be aggressive if threatened.
- They also carry diseases that can be passed to humans and people have diseases that can make seals sick.
Normal seal behaviour
- Most seals reported as injured or sick are simply resting.
- Regurgitating, sneezing or coughing is normal behaviour for seals.
- Seals can appear to be "crying". These are natural moisture secretions .
- Young seals are often left alone on land for days while their mothers are at sea feeding. They do not need help so do not try to move them.
- Seals often drift in the waves.
- Seals often flap their flippers in the air to regulate their temperature. It's not a sign that they are stranded.
When to call DOC about a seal
- Call DOC if a seal is severely injured, entangled in net or rope, in danger from dogs, vehicles or any other human activity. Take photos and record vehicle registration numbers if possible.
- Contact DOC by calling 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468)
Once the New Zealand fur seal lived and bred right round the coast of New Zealand. But they were hunted for more than 700 years, first by Maori and then from the 1790s by European sealers.
There were an estimated two million New Zealand fur seals when European sealers began clubbing them to death to make fur seal hats and coats. Oil from their bodies was also burned in lamps for lighting. By the 1830s the New Zealand fur seal was close to extinction.
Sealing was finally banned in 1894. Since then their numbers have been rising and gradually fur seals have been re-colonising our coastline.