For as long as I have been in the area there have been seals in Kalk Bay Harbour. I cannot remember ever going there and there not being at least one seal cavorting around the moored boats, taking advantage of the fishermen’s waste.
In the past, since there have been such low numbers I always assumed that the seals were either old hands looking for a free meal, sick animals looking for refuge or tired individuals just looking for a rest.
That was until three weeks ago when I took advantage of a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon and took a walk to Kalk Bay. The place was even busier than normal and it was shoulder to shoulder for the fishermen on the harbour wall. There was also a huge crowd at the harbour steps and so I went over to see what was happening. As expected there was a seal lazing around the base of the steps, and I could see another one lounging on its back just out in the harbour. I was just about to walk away when I realized that there were several more animals out under the boats, and still another couple in close to the steps. It was difficult to count exactly how many seals were there but there had to be at least half a dozen, which is the most that I have ever seen in the harbour. Curious as to the correlation between the large crowd of tourists and increase in seal numbers I slowly walked down the wharf keeping an eye on the steps.
It wasn’t long before the whole scene began to play out. Several teenage boys came from the fish stalls carry offal from the cleaning and filleting of the catch. The boys walked onto the top steps and proceeded to make a show of feeding the guts and tails to the seals, doing there best to ensure that the seals were getting in close, if not onto the steps to get fed. I watched for several minutes, walked to the end of the pier and then back down and the show was still going on (at no point did I see money change hands and so assume the boys were doing it for their own amusement).
Walking home I had a debate with myself; was I looking for problems where there were none, concerned over what was a win-win for all concerned? Maybe, but something was plaguing my intellect about the whole situation. My counter argument was along the lines that this couldn’t be good for the seals and could ultimately lead to confrontation between the animals and the human observers. Feeding wild animals, especially large ones usually ends badly, and ultimately the biggest loses are the animals themselves. Also I couldn’t quite come to terms with the idea that the offal would be as nutritionally beneficial as eating the whole fish.
I also wondered if the increase in numbers was due to more than just a free meal. Was it possible that there was a problem with the wild population? We hadn’t had any bad storms so I didn’t think it was that, although it did cross my mind that there could be an increase in predator numbers or something like that.
It was still on my mind when I got home and so decided to send out some emails to ask the experts what they thought. Many thanks to those who responded (see list below), the information supplied was invaluable.
The resounding opinion was that feeding the seals is incredibly dangerous, harmful and even illegal!
Kalk Bay harbour is not a good environment for the seals, and according to Mike Meyers of the Department of Environmental Affairs it is not a naturally appropriate place for a seal colony due to the lack of a haul out area. Whilst in the harbour, the seals are at risk from propeller injuries and attacks from fishermen, as well as an increase in pollution in the water. The food poses another danger is it can often contains harmful bacteria which can even cause disease in the wild population. Other problems can be caused by entanglements in things like discarded nylon line, nets, plastic bags and the plastic fastenings from can packs.
As for whether it is a dangerous thing to do Mike told me:
“Seals associated with feeding programs will inevitably associate humans with food and in most cases also become problem animals. This is a serious issue at harbours, where fishermen have been bitten by seal in the process of handing items to other fishermen. Many fishermen, members of the public (including people that have fed seals offal) have been injured. Most of these seals are males which can reach 400 kg, and are immensely powerful with large canines that they use to grab and shake, potentially leaving persons badly injured and permanently. It is not exceptional for feeding of wild animals to have regrettable consequences and it is usually the animals that pay the ultimate.”
This doesn’t sound too promising.
I also had a very interesting and thorough response from Mbulelo Dopolo, Marine Program Manager, Cape Research Centre: Scientific Services.
“Thanks very much Russell for bringing this issue up with SANParks, and do share many of the concerns you have. I would like to start by stating that this practice (feeding of wildlife) is prohibited by legislation, and people caught doing this could be fined. This particular practice is common with the baboons, but do not make it correct in anyway. The challenge I am trying to bring across in this case is that the public (including tourists) get excited by the opportunity to take pictures at such close range without thinking about possible consequences this could or would have on the wild animals. The practice puts peoples (including the people who chum these seals) life at risk as wild animals can be unpredictable, especially seals which can be really aggressive. Likely implications for the seals include possible contamination of these fish remains some form of bacteria that could result in sicknesses that could be transferred to others once the seal is back in the wild, and may result in catastrophic consequences. In addition, this has the potential to cause behavioural change (e.g. the wild animals will loose their fear of humans and vice versa) which is not a desirable thing.
I will relate this information to our Area Manager: Marine to dispatch a marine education officer at this particular harbour to deal with the issue in an amicable manner. If the problem persists, SANParks may have to dispatch compliance officers.”
I find this response very revealing, and it brings up an issue that I had not considered, namely that feeding any wild animal is illegal and offenders face the same penalties as feeding baboons.
All stake holders agree that this is a problem that requires education. Those feeding the seals are breaking the law and I am sure they don’t realize that they are doing so. There are certainly no signs, although ignorance is no defense in law. Tourists who are encouraging the practice are just as complicit and should really know better, although it is likely to be harder to educate them than would the locals. As Mbulelo points out, tourists get very excited about the possibility of photographing wild life up close and so will ignore the negative consequences that there actions will cause.
I can understand that organizations such as SanParks and local officials have a lot to deal with and can be spread pretty thin on the ground. Public awareness and participation can help a great deal in helping them carry out their duties, knowing where best to deploy their resources etc. Not everyone feels confident in telling a crowd of people the ugly truth of their actions, however, a simple action like emailing the right people could help with the situation: don’t think that you are bothering anyone, the people who took the time to reply to me obviously care a great deal about the environment and really need the help, even if it is only as extra eyes and ears on the ground.
If you see a group of tourists hanging around and you are a confident person, just strike up a friendly conversation with a few of them and kindly reeducate them. Should you not be so confident then report the activity as soon as you can. The tourists are only here for a short time and then they leave. Unfortunately we will be left with the negative consequences of the activities they are encouraging: seals will go the same way as the baboons- but seals weigh up to 400 kilos which will make them much more than just a nuisance. Eventually problem animals will end up being euthanized.
Let’s help the local government agencies nip this in the bud. We need to start working with these guys and not against them.
Thank you to the following people who helped me in writing this article
Wildlife Unit Supervisor
Cape of Good Hope SPCA
Table Mountain National Park
Environmental Affairs and Development Planning
Communication & Marketing Management Services
Environmental Affairs & Development Planning
Scientist/Science Liaison Officer
SOUTH AFRICAN NATIONAL PARKS
Cape Research Centre
Department of Environmental Affairs
Marine Program Manager
Cape Research Centre: Scientific Services