Seal at the slipway

Urgent call to action on the future of seal diving and snorkeling in South Africa

Seal at the slipway
Seal at the slipway

Proposed changes to the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (no. 10 of 2004) will limit scuba divers’ and snorkelers access to Cape fur seal colonies. The proposal was brought to our attention by Georgina Jones (for which we thank her!). Unfortunately the timeline for comments is extremely limited: we must submit written responses to the proposal by 30 April, which is this coming Thursday.

Proposed legislative changes with respect to Cape fur seals

The primary change that will affect us as scuba divers and snorkelers is that we will no longer be allowed within 30 metres of a Cape fur seal colony. This will mean that we cannot approach the colonies at Duiker Island in Hout Bay and at Partridge Point in False Bay. Furthermore, it may mean that we cannot even drive the boat through the gap between Duiker Island and the mainland. Boat routing around the Partridge Point colony will also be affected. Fortunately we don’t do any recreational diving around Seal Island in False Bay, so we don’t need to worry about that!

The Government Gazette outlining the changes is long (288 pages) and you can download it in its entirety here, but I have snipped out the relevant sections. The first is the definition of “harrassment” from page 88, which in point (f) relates to all seal species and states that one may not “approach a colony closer than 30 metres”.

Definition of harrassment
Definition of harrassment (click to enlarge)

The second relevant section is on pages 260-261 as they specifically apply to Cape fur seals. Note that the second last bullet point (on the second page, page 261) prohibits “harassment” of seals, which is defined above.

Cape fur seals regulations
Cape fur seals regulations (click to enlarge)
Cape fur seals regulations continued
Cape fur seals regulations continued (click to enlarge)

Why we object to the proposed legislation

Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) are not endangered. In Namibia they are hunted, but in South Africa hunting of seals was stopped years ago. They are classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Redlist, which states that

Due to their large population sizes, the global Cape Fur Seal (Afro-Australian Fur Seal) population appears to be healthy, and the subspecies should both therefore be classified as Least Concern (LC).

The best place to encounter Cape fur seals is in proximity to a breeding colony (such as Duiker Island in Hout Bay) or haul out spot (such as Partridge Point in False Bay). The largest breeding colony is Seal Island in False Bay, and recreational diving and snorkeling is off limits there owing to the white shark population that feeds there, primarily in winter. Restricting access to 30 metre wide areas around these colonies will not improve the lot of the seal populations in any way.

Fishermen frequently have an adversarial relationship with seals (Shaughnessy & Kirkwood). Allowing scuba divers and snorkelers to approach seal colonies in the water enables them to observe any abuses that may be perpetrated on the seals by water users who do not appreciate the seals’ presence. It also provides a means for monitoring and reporting the impact of plastic pollution on the animals, which may be significant. Loops of plastic from bait boxes, shopping bags and from six packs of canned drinks pose a risk to these curious mammals, who get their heads or flippers stuck inside the plastic loops. This causes slow and painful damage to the animals as they grow.

There is no indication that activity by snorkelers and scuba divers causes the seals any distress or leads to harmful behaviour modification that could impact individual seals’ chances of survival (Kirkwood et al 2003). Seals are curious and friendly, and frequently and willingly approach people in the water in order to interact.

If conducted sensitively, trips allowing visitors to experience Cape fur seals have great conservation value, not only encouraging awareness of seal conservation issues, but also of species that prey on and are preyed upon by seals, and of issues of plastic pollution in the marine environment.

The monetary value of Cape fur seals as a tourism resource is also significant and contributes to South Africa’s tourism sector. In addition to snorkeling and scuba diving trips, run by a number of operators, there are seal viewing boats (which sometimes pose a significant danger to snorkelers and divers in the water, but that’s another story…) operating out of Hout Bay, which bring thousands of visitors, mostly tourists, to see the colonies each year.

As both Duiker Island and Partridge Point are located close to shore, restricting boat movements around them may force watermen to use less safe routes up and down the coastline, and force them further out to sea than they would otherwise choose to venture in order to avoid the seals.

(It is in fact not clear to me whether Partridge Point, which is a resting or haul out spot rather than a breeding colony, will fall under the proposed legislation, but Duiker Island in Hout Bay certainly will, as will Seal Island in False Bay.)

How we think seals need to be protected

A more impactful (sorry, hate that word) way to protect seals from perceived harrassment would be to enforce a Code of Conduct for seal tourism operators. This would prohibit landing of people on a seal colony by tourist operators. The use of toys such as bits of rope to attract seals in the water should also be prohibited. Teaching seals to identify human manufactured materials as playthings will only lead to more entanglement of young animals in plastic waste. Strict boat speed limits should be enforced around seal colonies and haul out spots. Finally, no bait or chum should be permitted to be used by operators, even if it is kept on the boat and trickled over the side or held inside a glove and not given to the seals.

How to submit comments

If you enjoy snorkeling and diving with seals and want to be able to share that with friends and family in the future, or have a business that profits from seal trips, or if you like to win photography competitions with pictures of seals chomping at your dome port, this means you have a vested interest in the legislation that has been proposed.

The quickest way to comment is to send an email to nmbedzi@environment.gov.za with your comments or objections. Feel free to use any or all of the ones we have listed above. Please do this now!

Contact details to submit comments
Contact details to submit comments (click to enlarge)

Operators who do white shark trips and turtle nesting tours in Sodwana should also consult the proposed changes carefully, because they may impact their operations as well.

Published by

Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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