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Community questions on long-nosed fur seals

Why are the fur seals coming into the Ramsar site? What are the fur seals doing in the River, Lakes and Coorong?

An open Murray Mouth has provided easy access into the Coorong, where there is also a ready supply of food, safety from predators and places to sleep. Long-nosed fur seal numbers have been increasing in South Australia over the past few decades. This increase is believed to represent a recovery following the end of commercial hunting in the 1800s.

Will the freshwater be harmful to the fur seals?

No, many species of seal live in freshwater, and some species that are mostly marine enter rivers. An example of the latter is the Californian sea lion, which travels up the Columbia River. There is mention in a newspaper from the 1800s of a seal in the River Murray at Swan Hill, Victoria.

Will non-traditional food sources (such as carp) be harmful to the fur seals?

This is unlikely, but a research project under way into the diet of long-nosed fur seals’ diet may shed some light on this.

What impact will the ‘seal McDonalds’ i.e. fishways and fishnets have on the fur seals’ physical health?

Ready access to suitable food is not likely to impact negatively on the physical health of long-nosed fur seals. A research project under way into the diet of long-nosed fur seals may provide more information on this.

What impact will the seals have on the threatened fish species, which the fishways were set up to conserve?

Fishways are designed to assist at least 30 species of native fish. The small-bodied native fish of the area that are conservation-listed do not favour the habitats where seals have been most frequently observed. Seals will reduce the abundance of some fish, but it is unlikely that they will drive the extinction of any fish species.

Will the fur seal-related deaths of Australian pelicans impact the recovering pelican population?

This is unlikely, as pelicans are a very minor component of the long-nosed fur seal diet, and pelican numbers have been shown to be recovering strongly following the drought. DEWNR will undertake monitoring of key pelican breeding sites in the Coorong during the 2015 breeding season.

Given that the fur seals have been seen at Woods Well, are they likely to take young pelicans or eggs when they start breeding?

Seals may take the occasional pelican in the water by swimming up beneath them, but they are unlikely to go ashore on the island where pelicans breed and take young pelicans or eggs. Long-nosed fur seals feed in the water, not on land. DEWNR has set up monitoring cameras at key pelican breeding sites in the Coorong during the 2015 breeding season.

What about impacts to other species of water-bird such as musk ducks?

Although long-nosed fur seals may occasional take pelicans and other water-birds, including musk ducks, it is unlikely that they will have any impact on the overall populations of these species.

Will they take young lambs when they are down near the water?

Seals feed in the water, not on land. No seal has ever been recorded as taking a lamb anywhere in the world. If a seal is surprised by another animal on land, it may lunge at it with an open mouth as a form of threat.

Will they attack domestic dogs?

It is unlikely, as a dog would normally be too agile for a fur seal. If a dog bothers or attacks a seal, the seal will defend itself or its young, but it would not attack a dog unprovoked.

Are they a hazard to those swimming or walking along the lake (should we close the lake to swimming)?

This is unlikely. A seal would only attack if provoked and left with no means of escape. In New Zealand tourism operators have successfully offered swimming with seals as a product for over 15 years.

What should we do if/when they climb onto our boats?

Seals are naturally inquisitive and it is possible that they may be attracted to boats, particularly if there are fish on board.  Stories of seals climbing into boats are few, but it can happen.

Prevention is better than cure – don’t attract seals to boats by feeding them or by discarding fish from boats.

Seals are unlikely to be physically capable of climbing into larger vessels; however in the event a seal approaches a smaller vessel or kayak, the vessel should be paddled or moved away slowly and quietly.

If by chance a seal does climb into a boat, stay calm and situate yourself in a stable and safe place in the boat away, from the seal.  If available, an oar or other object (such as an esky lid) can be used as protection if the seal comes too close. It is likely to exit the boat on its own, or else a gentle prod, especially around the foreflippers, may encourage it to leave.

How far away do we need to stay from them and how can this be done in turbid water/winding river reaches?

You need to stay 30m away from a seal that is hauling out on land. If seals approach you or your boat, you are not in breach of the legislation.

Are the fur seals a symptom of low flows? Will they go away with higher flows or are they here to stay?

It is unlikely that seals are a symptom of low flow. Their presence in the Coorong and the river is a sign of the species’ recovery and the reliable food source available in the Coorong. Fur seals arrived in the Coorong during the drought, when there were abundant yellow eye mullet. Since then, the mullet stocks have remained healthy, and the seals have returned to target them.

We have seen pups at the barrages, are they breeding?

There is no evidence that long-nosed fur seals are breeding in the Coorong or Lower Lakes, or that they have ever bred there. The small seals seen at the barrages are most likely small juveniles, or, from September onwards, possibly a pup that has been weaned and left its breeding colony.

Government staff will monitor the area in December 2015 and January 2016, to confirm that seals are not breeding.

What impact would a breeding colony have on nutrient cycles in the increasingly low-flow Lakes or Coorong?

Long-nosed fur seals are unlikely to establish a breeding colony in the Coorong or Lower Lakes because the terrain is unsuitable for their breeding habbits.

The relatively large biomass of mullet, mulloway, pelicans and other predatory animals is likely to mean that the relatively small biomass of itinerant seals is not going to have any impact on nutrient cycles in the area.

A research project under way into the seals’ diet may provide more information on this.

Is it possible to use the fur seals to generate a profit (i.e. nature based tourism) and how would this work, alongside efforts to manage their impact?

Seals and sea lions underpin the $100 million tourism industry on Kangaroo Island. In the Coorong, fur seals are already being featured by a kayak touring company in Goolwa and by ‘Spirit of the Coorong’ tours. In New Zealand tourism operators have successfully offered swimming with seals as a product for over 15 years.

Efforts to manage the impact of long-nosed fur seals on the local fishing industry are centred on investigating alternative fishing gear and practices to keep seals away from caught fish, and a trial of various seal deterrents.

How does the proliferation of fur seals in the Coorong impact our obligations to maintain the ecological character of the Ramsar site?

Fur seals weren’t as common at the time of listing in 1985.

The Coorong is a highly modified environment, impacted significantly by the regulation of flows in the River Murray. Seals are a natural part of the marine ecosystem, and there is no evidence to suggest they are impacting negatively on the ecological character of the site. However, monitoring is underway to ensure that evidence based decisions can be made about how best to manage any impact long-nosed fur seals might be having.

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