Youth Ocean Ambassadorship: Seals and fish

9th December 2015

Swimming with seals at Duiker Island near Hout Bay, Cape Town, taught me some amazing things. I was surprised by the seals’ agility and very large puppy-dog eyes that peered at me from afar. They glided playfully around me, cooling off after baking in the sun for hours, and some – nervous, but still curious – even attempted to approach me.

As I stepped off the boat in Hout Bay harbour, I felt inspired by the beauty I had experienced. It was only after our Youth Ocean Ambassadorship (YOA) team had conducted a few surveys around the harbour that I discovered that our experiences of the seals were not always shared by the local people.

Casha, Anthea and Jaymee listen to a talk by Nathan from Animal Ocean before they begin their seal adventure.

Casha, Anthea and Jaymee listen to a talk by Nathan from Animal Ocean before they begin their seal adventure.

We set out with survey forms to question business owners who operate in Hout Bay harbour, wanting to know more about their dependence on Seal Island. And we found out a lot more than we had bargained for.

Many vendors and restaurant owners in the harbour believe that without the seal population, which is the main attraction for tourists, their businesses would not be able to exist. However, after we had spoken to some local fishermen, it became clear that opinions about the seals’ presence are divided. The fishermen believe that without the seals, their catches have the potential to sky rocket. They were firmly in favour of culling the seals, even though the population is situated in a marine protected area.

The local fishermen need their catches and some have even been taking matters into their own hands by shooting at seals that approach their nets to scare them away. It’s easy to understanding their need for income, but should it come at the expense of many of these puppy-eyed creatures?

To answer this question it helps to ask another: to what extent do seals actually influence fish populations? Looking into the subject, I was surprised to find out that although seals consume fish, studies have shown that they can also be beneficial to fishermen. In the book Marine Mammals: Fisheries, tourism and management issues, the authors Mark Hindell and Roger Kirkwood quote from a study of the call to cull seals in South Africa. Two hake species are fished in the waters around South Africa. Both are also eaten by seals – and one is eaten by the other! One species of hake is desired more by local fisheries than the other, and that other seems to have a very large appetite for the preferred species. In effect, it is anticipated that the culling of seals will give free rein to the predatory hake species and possibly have a detrimental effect on our hake fisheries.

Casha interviews some tourists after their seal snorkel with Animal Ocean.

Casha interviews some tourists after their seal snorkel with Animal Ocean.

The fact is that we simply do not know what effect seal culling will have on fish populations. It is possible that the opposite of the desired effect is achieved, as seals are part of a complex ecosystem that is under constant pressure from humans. Removing seals may lead to an increase in other predators, resulting in fewer fish. Overfishing has caused the collapse of many fishing industries, and blaming the seals is not the answer. Culling these creatures will not correct our wrongs and won’t bring the fish back.

But to return to the harbour, I’d like to tell you briefly about a man named Mario. Mario is a vendor in Hout Bay harbour and his passion is working for himself and owning his own business. He makes a living from the influx of tourism that Duiker Island creates. He is one of many.

In my opinion, culling the seals would be a double-edged sword for this harbour. On one hand, it would ruin tourism and the livelihoods of many locals; on the other, it would mean destruction of the marine sanctuary we have created.

Casha is one of Save Our Seas Foundation’s Youth Ocean Ambassadors.