by Peter Bridgeford, Co-ordinator, Vultures Namibia
The Cape fur seal, one of a number of wild animals utilised on a sustainable basis, is found along the coast of Southern Africa, from Algoa Bay in South Africa, through Namibia and into southern Angola. Culling of seals has taken place for 400 years and there are still large, healthy populations of these marine mammals.
The sustainable utilisation of resources is enshrined in Article 95 of the Namibian Constitution. Wildlife providing game meat and trophies and domestically reared animals providing mutton, beef, goat, and karakul pelts, contribute enormously to employment and income generated in the country and to the GDP through exports. The latter products are obtained through normal farming practices and game meat through the hunting industry and culling of animals. From the marine environment, the export of fish is one of the mainstays of the Namibian economy and the culling of seals is a small but nonetheless important sector. All these products are from sustainable stocks.
Cape fur seals are found in 26 colonies along the Namibian coast. Many of these colonies are on the offshore islands but there several big mainland colonies at Atlas and Wolf Bay south of Lüderitz, and at Cape Cross the large and well-known colony. The Cape Cross Seal Reserve attracts thousands of visitors a year and the new walkways provide excellent viewing of the many seals and interactions between them. In the past 30 years, new seal colonies have been established at Conception Bay, Pelican Point, Walvis Bay and further north at Cape Frio in the Skeleton Coast Park.
The number of marine stocks utilised on an annual basis is not an arbitrary figure decided upon in an impromptu manner. Seals are photographed during early January when the maximum number of seal pups and cows are on land. The numbers of pups are counted from enlarged photographs. By using proven formulas, the total number of seals is extrapolated. From these figures, the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources determines the total allowable catch (TAC). An example is the total count for 2007, when calculations showed there were 770 000 seals in Namibia. Of these, 120 000 were pups, of which 25% would die of natural causes. Similarly, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism regulates the number of animals to be hunted. Because of a decrease in kudu numbers throughout the country, owing to a severe outbreak of rabies the past few years, the Ministry has halved the number of kudus to be hunted. This reduced, sustainable utilisation of the present kudu population, will give it a chance to recover.
The biggest killer of Cape fur seals is not humankind, but the capricious ocean. The Benguela Current is one the major southern hemisphere current systems. The north-flowing current and the south-west winds cause upwellings – the movement of water masses from deep down brought to the surface. As a result of the nutrients in these water masses, the phenomenal growth of phytoplankton and zooplankton supply filter-feeding fish such as sardines and anchovies with vast amounts of food. These fish are predated by other fishes and it is no surprise that the Benguela system is of the most productive on earth. Not only fish are in abundance, but also large seabirds and seals. However, environmental anomalies caused by a lack of south-west winds, result in poor upwellings, leading to a shortage of food for the whole food web. High mortalities and abortions are evident among the seals and have been recorded several times in the last 20 years. Thousands of Cape cormorants have also died of starvation.
Seal culling is and will remain a controversial subject. Perhaps it is the clubbing of the young seals that is causing the emotional reaction. Other ways of killing the young seals have been investigated by researchers all over the world, but no better alternative has been found. Clubbing was found to be the most humane. Namibia also has a legal and moral duty, as it is a signatory of the United Nations Law of the Sea and the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. There are several conservation and animal welfare groups in the country and they work with the government to use resources in a sustainable manner.
On several occasions, the Namibian government has invited its anti-sealing proponents to meet and bring new ideas and proposals to the table to resolve the controversial issue. To date this has not happened, but the anti-lobby keeps sniping from the sidelines. Some opponents, it has been suggested, are not opposed to sealing for purely moral reasons. It is easy for financially secure individuals to use the moral high ground to criticise the culling of seals. However, the short culling season provides part-time employment, however unpleasant it may be, to the poorest people in the community. Each employed person supports about seven members of the extended family.
The last word on the centuries-old utilisation of seals throughout the world has not been heard. While it is important for non-governmental organisations to be aware of and report illegal and immoral practices, it must not be to the detriment of the natural resources or the inhabitants of the country.
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This article appeared in the 2009/10 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.