More seal shootings highlight our ignorance

02:52, Jul 25 2013

New Zealand is known as the marine mammal capital of the world. Despite our seal hunting history, we are lucky to have seals and sea lions in this country, so why are our seals such targets for hooligans?

Yesterday morning I got a visit from my next-door neighbour, who had come over to ask me to please write a blog on the shooting of two New Zealand fur seals near Kaikoura this week.

He was quite upset, "disappointed, disgusted and in disbelief" that someone could deliberately harm these animals.

To be honest, I guess I'd gotten a little blase about our revolting behaviour when it comes to seals in this country and as I'd written about incidents like the Kaikoura seal shootings before here, I wasn't thinking about dedicating a blog post to the latest incident.

New Zealand fur seals are still only a fraction of their former numbers, after being hunted to near-extinction.


But my neighbours are lovely, and they have been up to Kaikoura to visit the pups at the waterfall near where these seals were shot and I know how much they get out of seeing them, so I began to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard actually), when I discovered that there has been another callous shooting of a marine mammal today, this time a critically endangered New Zealand sea lion.  

What the hell is wrong with these people who take it upon themselves to shoot native seals and sea lions?

New Zealand sea lions are critically endangered, sadly one was found shot on Stewart Island today.

Every time there is a shooting/bashing of seals, there begins a debate (mostly via blog comments and talkback) among certain New Zealanders who seem to think it's "OK" to shoot/bash/run over seals. I'd just like to take you through some of these arguments and bring some facts to the table:

There's too many seals, it's time for a cull anyway

I spotted this comment on the initial story about the seal shootings this week. Give me strength.

While it's true that the New Zealand fur seal population is recovering, this is a slow process that is taking decades and decades. In fact, seals were hunted to almost extinction by first Maori and then European sealers - the numbers of seals we are seeing now around New Zealand's coasts are just a fraction of their former numbers. To put it in perspective, in 1800 there were more than 50,000 seals found on the Subantarctic Bounty Islands, and by 1831 after constant hunting, there were just five remaining. It doesn't take long for a long-lived, slow-breeding mammal to have its numbers decimated by hunting pressure.  

The New Zealand sea lion, classified as nationally critical in its threat status, was once found right around our coastlines and is now restricted to the Subantarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands for breeding, as well as a tiny micropopulation breeding on the Otago Coast. We are lucky to have them at all - to shoot one just defies belief.

It is correct that we are seeing more seals around now, and that they are appearing in places that perhaps we haven't seen them before - but isn't that a good thing? Last week, one seal made headlines in Wellington after it crossed six lanes of traffic and had a snooze on the road.  

The other reason that we 'see' so many seals is that they are not evenly distributed around the coast. New Zealand fur seals prefer rocky coastlines as haulouts. This means that while they may gather in one area (actually, usually two, one for young males, another for breeding colonies like that at Ohau Point near Kaikoura), they disperse extremely widely once out at sea, and can swim for huge distances.  They are not concentrated in colony-size regularly around our coasts, but when we see them altogether like that it makes us think there are heaps and heaps of them.

They're eating all our fish

I have heard this misguided statement several times over the years. I hate to break it to you - but the seals aren't 'eating all our fish'. We're the ones eating all our fish. The increase in the number of fishing vessels, the size, and the technology used to catch fish has led to a depletion of fish-stocks all over the world. A healthy seal population actually points to a healthy fish population - and as they eat a wide variety of fish I don't think they're in danger of eating us out of 'our' fish. Before people got to New Zealand, the coast was home to millions of seals, so the surrounding ocean must have had plenty of fish to support that population. It's only in the last couple of hundred years that 'our' fish numbers have started to decline. In Kaikoura, the seals mostly eat moonfish, not commercially fished for humans anyway.

We're a nation of hunters, what's the big deal?

Why should we worry about the deaths of a handful of seals when we are perfectly OK with being a nation of hunters who regularly shoot possums, deer, ducks, pigs, thar, chamois etc etc? The merits of whether or not we should kill animals for food or for pest control is an ethical debate that must be left up to the individual to decide. However, the merits of killing a legally protected species with no intention of eating it are nil. First, it's illegal, stupid. Secondly, shooting seals appears to be something that individuals do for 'fun' with no other purpose other than to take pot-shots at an unsuspecting animal. Can't see any merits there either.

They're just seals

Tell that to the business community of Kaikoura, who have made their international reputation of being a town of wildlife watching opportunities. The seals at Ohau Point attract thousands of tourists a year, who travel to Kaikoura to enjoy coastal nature at its best. During their travels, visitors spend thousands on eco-tourism activities, accomodation and dining. It is in our best interests to protect these animals to protect the extremely valuable nature-watching reputation of towns like Kaikoura. Take Whale Watch as just one example - it turned a sleepy little fishing town into an international hotspot for whale-watching and is a multi-million dollar money earner.

So no New Zealand, none of those arguments wash with me. It is time we fronted up to these morons who continue to mar our nature-loving brand - if you know who was behind the latest two incidents, do the decent thing and hand them over to the cops. If you don't want to do it for the seals, do it for our national pride.


-  In 2010, 23 seals were bashed to death with a metal bar at Ohau Point, Kaikoura.

Renwick man Jason Godsiff was convicted for killing the mammals and initially sentenced to two years' imprisonment. However, this was reduced to eight months' home detention on appeal.

- Also in 2010, a 20-year-old Southland man was jailed for four months for his role in an attack on a leopard seal in October last year. Fist-sized stones were thrown at the seal and it was dragged around a beach by its tail. Two other men were fined $5000 and $7000 respectively for their part in the attack.

- In July 2010, Hayden John Ingram was sentenced to community work and fines after he ran over a seal pup at the Point Keen colony and beat an adult with a steel pole, killing both animals, in June. A youth has also been charged with cruelty and will be dealt with by the Youth Court.

- In 2005, three men, including All Black Andrew Hore, were each fined $2500 in relation to shooting at seals, killing one, on the Otago coast.

- Under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 there are penalties of up to six months' imprisonment or a fine of up to $250,000 for killing or harming fur seals or other marine mammal plus a further fine of up to $10,000 for every marine mammal the offence was committed against.

Centuries ago about two million fur seals lived around the New Zealand coast but in the early 1800s due to hunting of seals they were nearly wiped out. Seals were given full protection by the New Zealand Government in 1849.

Why do you think people keep attacking seals? Do you think we have a problem as a nation when it comes to our seals and sea lions?  I'm keen to hear your thoughts.

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