Animal Protection > Activism > South Africa

Understanding the South African Seal Debate

As nature intended

Many of you, may be a little confused about the Seal situation here in southern Africa. Herewith is a brief outline. 700 years ago, there was an estimated 20 million seals living on less than 20 barren islands that are found along our coastline, over their 4000 km distribution range. 80% of these islands is found off the Cape/South Africa and 20% is found in Namibia. Being the top predator Seals dominated these few islands, although from earliest historical accounts, seals shared these islands with seabirds in harmony.

To truly understand this significance, and again in part, just 2 islands alone, situated right next to each other, accounted for over 75% of all the offshore land in southern Africa. Over millions of years of evolution, seals had evolved to play a most vital of role, in the whole natural eco-food chain off this coast, one of the most productive fisheries in the world. Their task to remove the sick and the weak from migratory fish species, that would mature far to the north, and then migrate south to spawn, before making the long journey back. Theirs was a task of migratory fish selectivity, ensuring each species they preyed upon remained healthy. The islands well placed geographically, would provide bountiful prey of the right size for the growing pups, as the fish matured and moved past their islands northwards. Their population keep in check by a variety of factors, with the islands, providing alpha bulls and mating cows the opportunity to control their own population size, limited by the set size of each island. This unique relationship, between seals, their size of their population, their islands and their prey, fish, had developed into seas teaming with fish of many species

Extensive sealing over the past few centuries, saw all these offshore seal colonies collapse. By 1900 seals were virtually extinct.

seal-less island - extinct
To understand man's rape of our marine environment, one must understand, that like a calculated methodical removal system, man first removed the biggest, easiest and most visible. This is how his commercial mind has always worked. First it was the whales, when depleted and no longer commercially viable, he moved onto the seals, after wiping them out, he moved onto the seabirds, then their eggs, and then with regard to the land offshore islands, the guano (bird droppings) scrapping them clean, then he moved onto the seas, the surface shoaling fish, then the big game deep water fish, then the line fish, then the bottom dwelling fish and now even the sea-plants. As he has done so, his costs have risen and his need for greater profit increased.
Whilst he raped and pillaged one species to the next, he left one exploited species after another, in his wake, in tatters. In case of seals their exploited turn ended in 1900 when they were almost extinct. No longer hunted, they attempted to rebuild their destroyed colonies and fulfill their vital role. But, their historic breeding habitats, islands were denied to them, as these were now being exploited for seabirds, their eggs and guano. Thousands of men were pouring over islands scrapping them clean. It was bird-poo "gold rush". So desperate were seals to re-colonize their offshore islands once again, government was forced to physically build walls on 11 of the largest to keep them off permanently. With only 20 islands situated in their lucrative migratory fishing grounds, seals had few options.
The first seeds of a man altered natural environment were laid. One of the first reactions to this imbalance, seabirds numbers unnaturally grew and took over these once seal islands. Expanding due to less competition, for space and prey, to a point of over-population.

exclusive seabird island, once a seal colony

Man in his infinite wisdom of greed, could not understand the principles of evolution and bio-diversity, that seals should be there, in fact they are the very key to the whole success of keeping this one of the most productive fisheries in the world. Instead they increased their harvest of these seabirds and their eggs, until all that was left was bird droppings.

So forced unnaturally, Seals took to breeding on 16 small awash rocks, not suitable for their pups. As the species recovered initially, made possible by two factors their numbers were so low, and commercial fishing was still in its infancy, soon overcrowding became an issue, and these seals were forced to begin breeding on the mainland for the first time. This started in 1940, and with it forever altering the evolutionary path of this species. By 1950, their numbers had sufficiently recovered to facilitate renewed interest in them, not because of their profitability in harvesting them, but in the concern they might in future pose to the now lucrative fishing industry, that was already feeling the effects of overfishing in the 1960's, visually aided in this thought, was their overcrowded numbers on these small 16 awash rocks. Fishermen seldom visualize the bigger picture.

A typical awash rock during pupping time in the Cape
So small was the total population on all 16 awash rocks, that if they were all allowed to re-colonize just one single island, Robben, the Island of Seals, they would only occupy 10ha of the 507 ha island, or just 2%. Banned from doing so, not only on Robben, but all 20 islands which were bigger than 2 ha. For man in his infinite wisdom, had decided that in order to protect his fish stocks in the Cape, he would banish seals from the Cape for good. Fortunately for the environment and in part, the seals, they found refuge on these 16 awash rocks, and so could in part fulfill, their natural role. Whilst exploiting man tried hard to displace and remove even these seal colonies, their awashness and smallness, prevented any form of commercially viable activity, and so in fact, saved them.
However the price, the seals have paid for decades was dear, almost all their new-born, would be washed away, drowning in the surrounding seas. It is estimated that in the last 30 years alone, over 1 million innocent seal babies have lost their lives because of this. Their continued survival hanging by a thread, between growth or decline.
Spurred on by the threat, these seals posed, backed by scientific proof, that a seals diet consumes 70% of its diet in "commercially viable fish-stocks" and their foraging range of swim even for a 10-month old pup was 1600 km, this threat was viewed as very real to the entire fishing industry, should their numbers continue to be allowed to grow. Plans were put in place, not seeking to profit from seal killing, as there was no market, but instead simply to "pay for the costs" of removing them, made commercially viable by the fact, that 80% of all pups were now being born unnaturally on the mainland in the north and in Namibia. At less than 100 000 pups being born, even at just 2% of their former pristine levels, their numbers now on the mainland made economic sense, to kill them once again, using their dead bodies, to pay for their own removal, through the sale of their skins and penises.
For the past 60 years, scientists "played" at keeping the seal population in check to appease their fishing "boss" masters, sometimes killing every second pup born once it reached the prime age of 7 months, sometimes killing all the alpha bulls. But, never ever killing the breeding cows, for their fear, was that it would destroy the species, and their lie, of gross mismanagement would be finally exposed. That their intentions, were never sustainable, but total mass overfishing. But as in nature, things were not working out for the scientists, the seal population on the mainland continued to grow and grow, unable to increase the clubbing quotas further, as there simply was just no market. The more they killed, the more pups seals had. But in their infinite stupidity, although their task was to keep seal numbers in the north and low, these growing herds of females, forced to re-pup every year, they lead their population to eating over 1 million tons of fish each year.

unnatural, man-made sealing colonies on the mainland

So whilst the banning of the seals from islands continued, which would have kept their numbers in check, the mainland's allowed them to expand, and due to reduced alpha bull presence, and younger weaker gened bulls mating instead, the seal population as a whole weakened. To understand the implications of all this more fully, at the time fisheries was removing 1.5 million tons each year, worth an estimated R5 billion. The growing, weakened displaced mainland seal herds were no longer fulfilling their role, instead they were now just competing to survive, and were eating their way through 1 million tons, of any fish they could find, at a cost close to R5 billion unseen loss to the industry. With over 2.5 million tons of fish being removed or eaten, not in a sustainable, migratory fashion, but in pure commercial exploitation/survival, the north/south/north migrating fish stocks became increasingly depleted, until in 1988, the system crashed, never to recover.

No longer could the fisheries remove 1.5 million tons, or even 20 000 tons, the quota was zero, so too was the R5 billion earned, no longer possible. Seals suffered as well as entire cohorts of over 300 000 seals starved to death. But still the clubbing and the banning continued, forcing ever more the seals to unnaturally react, seals which are now heading for Angola, in order to survive.

This would all make some weird human sense, if the once bountiful fisheries off the coast, had been used to feed the starving masses in Africa, but as these masses could not pay, it wasn't. In fact, there was no market at all for this "building block" of the marine food chain, the massive pelagic surface shoaling fish, like sardines, anchovy and pilchards. So massive was this resource that it used to account for 75% of the entire industry. The only viable way to market these millions of tons, was to offer it as a "cheap alternative protein" for domestic pet food and to feed livestock cheaply. Economically it was equally only viable when it benefited a "select privileged few. So to enrich a very few companies, an entire marine eco-system has been raped and plundered, causing untold suffering and death amongst the species themselves, causing millions to suffer and die, mostly from starvation, due to pure misinformation and greed.

As the entire marine eco-system collapsed over the past 50 years, man once again in his infinite wisdom, now began to diversify, harvesting the entire marine species, all at the same time. The more lucrative the specie harvested, the more the "fear" crept in to maintain it, soon a "war" erupted, where in order to protect ones investment and profits, anything that posed an immediate threat was destroyed. Slowly as the entire marine system collapses, conservationists in their infinite wisdom, driven by the lucrative ideals of "desperate donor funding", proposed in their "soft approach" - "funding campaigns" to rescue the most threatened from extinction.

This concept worked well, because it never confronted the main "culprits" directly - the commercial fishing industry, and focused on saving species, that no longer had any commercial value anyway or posed any direct threat. It's non-confrontational acceptance grew as did its authority on all matters of wildlife.

Not a single organization in southern Africa, is working to restore the pristine, historically correct, environmental balance. As this would be immediately opposed. Left therefore is a system that is doomed to fail from the start. So mis-informed and in fact bizarre has this become, organizations of world repute, are now working on saving species, that are not even technically endangered, if one considers their pristine correct population number, or in the very least, have no clue what their numbers were prior to exploitation, but now choose to consider them endangered. In fact, most conservation criteria, is based on population numbers just 30 years ago, that have no basis of truth. For example, afraid to rock the corporate funding world, in which commercial fishing sits, conservationists are attempting to protect many varieties of seabirds, by giving them exclusive seabird islands to breed on. Islands which should be dominated by the "apex" animal predator, as nature intended, seals, who are now physically banned and shot instead, by nature conservationists.

So bizarre has this become, that seals today are only found on 1% of the offshore island land mass, with the weaker lower species, in the food-chain dominating 99% of the off-shore islands unnaturally, seabirds. So once again, history repeats itself, conservationists working on the "visual", ignoring what lies beneath, and what lies beneath is the marine food-chain. With our ocean fast becoming depleted, any and every natural species is threatened, it makes no sense, in protecting the "breeding house" when the balance and food-chain, is rapidly declining.

There is only one way to save all the threatened, endangered, exploited and protected, remove all these "human" labels, and ensure sufficient "food" for all. In order to do this, the millions of years old evolving marine environment, should be allowed to re-balance itself naturally, as nature designed and intended. Unless we can all agree that nature is the "king", and not us, the battle will forever be lost.

There is one flaw, in the exploitation of our wildlife, in that according to the highest law in the land, it has to be done so "sustainably", however to whom is this yard-stick measured, the existing fishermen's continued profit or the wildlife that were there first, and who are now not only declining, but starving to death, or is it based on some small pre-conceived notion, of a reduced ever changing current wildlife's population sustainability.

There is however, still hope, even though in the case of seals, over 200 000 are starving to death, another 60 000 are being clubbed to death, a further 7000 bulls are shot commercially, and another 40 000 seal babies are drowned, even with 30 000 active fishermen going out to sea each day, where millions upon millions of baited fish hooks are dangled off our coast and where over 65 000 massive trawl nets deployed each year, there is still hope.

This hope comes in the form of the highest law in the land, the constitution, in which it states, "the harvest of a natural resource - fish, has to be done sustainably", by carefully standing up and being counted, we together can document and expose the biggest mass mortality of top predators- seals, the world has ever seen. By introducing seals back to one single island, we can alter the evolutionary path of seals back to what nature intended, and if we concern ourselves enough, we can get guns banned in fishing, and we can stop fish being sold for pet food and livestock feed, as cheap protein, unless it is harvested sustainably.

If we are really serious, we can restore the natural order of things.

For the Seals

Francois Hugo Seal Alert-SA