The Department of Conservation (DOC) is noticing higher than normal numbers of skinny and emaciated NZ fur seals/kekeno along the east coast of New Zealand.
DOC marine advisor Laura Boren says DOC staff have received an increased number of fur seal call outs over the winter, mainly about sick or dead fur seals, and have noticed increased pup mortality at some breeding colonies, such as in Kaikoura and Otago.
"It is highly likely this is a result of reduced productivity and prey availability, which could be related to a number of factors," Laura says. Necropsies will be carried out on a selection of pups to confirm the cause of death.
The department is currently gathering information to understand the extent of the situation and will continue to monitor it.
"It's usual at this time of the year for newly weaned young fur seal pups, aged nine or ten months, to start showing up on our beaches. They're just learning to make it on their own and its normal for many to be emaciated and weak," Laura says.
"Unless a seal is being harassed by dogs or people, is entangled in marine debris, is severely injured, or is in a situation where it might pose a risk to itself or to people, eg on a road or in a backyard, the best policy is to leave them alone."
"With more in poor condition this year, its important dog owners control their dogs around seals. These weak and helpless seals occasionally turn up in public places where they are vulnerable to dogs. The seals are small and easily picked up and shaken by a dog. Last year several seals were killed by dogs."
"We remind people 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 and their dog could be destroyed."
Anyone charged under the Act with harassing, disturbing, injuring or killing a seal faces a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment or a maximum fine of $250,000.
Report sightings of unusually high numbers of thin or dead seals to the DOC conservation emergency hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).
How to watch seals safely
- Keep dogs on a leash and under your control when around seals.
- Stay at least 20 metres away from seals.
- Keep children at a safe distance and under your control when watching seals.
- Don't disturb seals.
- Don't make loud noises or throw things at them.
- Don't 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.
- Don't get between a seal and the sea.
Risks posed by seals
- Seals can and do bite. They have sharp teeth and strong jaws which are three times as strong as an average dog.
- They are surprisingly agile on land and can move quickly if startled.
- Never try 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 don't need help so don't 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.
If you consider a seal to be in danger, phone your local DOC office or the DOC hotline 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 killing them 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. Now between 100,000 and 200,000 fur seals are estimated to live in New Zealand.