/ 1 November 2021

Thousands of thin Cape fur seals die on West Coast beaches

Cape Fur Seals Cape Cross
Cape fur seals.

Kim Krynauw has never seen anything like it: scores of starving Cape fur seals lying dead or dying on beaches along the West Coast.   

“In all the years that I’ve been doing this I’ve never in my life seen so many starving animals,” said Krynauw, who runs the Hout Bay Seal Rescue Centre. “I have no words to describe what we’re seeing at the moment.”

Thousands of emaciated Cape fur seals, including premature pups and sub-adult females, have washed up dead since the first reports of higher than normal mortalities at Paternoster, Shelly Beach and Elands Bay, emerged in early September.

According to Sea Search, which is a collective of scientists,reports of abnormally high numbers of mortalities around the West Coast have continued streaming in.

Overfishing is thought to be a major culprit behind the seal die-off, but efforts are ongoing to establish the root cause, said Tess Gridley, co-director of Sea Search and an extraordinary lecturer in the department of botany and zoology at Stellenbosch University.

“Currently all indications are that the animals are thin and lacking in food resources, at a critical time in their life cycle,” Gridley said.

A year ago, thousands of Cape fur seals perished in similar mass mortality in an “abortion storm” in Namibia, with indications pointing to nutritional deficiencies in pregnant Cape fur seals.

The Sea Search team has also documented several dead and sick seals entangled in fishing lines on the West Coast.

Krynauw and her team of volunteers are caring for 42 rescued seals — all pups and yearlings.

“Every single one of them is starving … The results that have come back from the autopsies is starvation and low body fat. It’s from overfishing from these big trawlers up and down our coast, and off our coast, and something needs to be done. Why is there no food? There needs to be some kind of answer,” she said.

Krynauw, who is funding the rescue mission out of her own pocket, says she battles to find pilchards and sardines to feed those seals that are being rehabilitated at the centre.

“We can’t ‘prove’ it’s overfishing … I have to buy pilchards from Port Elizabeth because there just aren’t any,” she said. “We are struggling to find fish to feed the starving seals and we have to feed them pilchards or sardines because they are the highest in fat, in omegas, thiamine and vitamin B, which helps with brain development and has a calming effect on these poor little things,” she said.

Krynauw is fielding constant calls to save dying adult seals from Melkbostrand, but the nonprofit is unable to help. “I can only rescue pups and yearlings at this point in time. I can do absolutely nothing to save the large seals. We don’t have the capacity to transport or tube feed them. We don’t have the ability at the centre to save the larger seals so I have to watch them die. It’s extremely sad.”

Sea Search is working with the authorities, other NGOs, veterinarians and citizen scientists to “start establishing what is happening” and has collected samples on behalf of the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment to be analysed at the state veterinarian to establish what the underlying cause of the mortality event might be.

Spokesperson Zolile Nqayi said the department was awaiting the results from the state vet.

“We’re not sure yet if it’s overfishing but the seals are struggling to get food,” he said. “A lot of them seem to be starving and quite thin.”

According to Gridley, Cape fur seal populations are well-known to “boom or bust” and die-offs are not uncommon. 

“This time of the year is normally a period of high energy demand for Cape fur seals, and it is not abnormal for some animals to not survive. Yearlings are now forced to fully wean and leave their mothers,” she said,

“Females are heavily pregnant, with pupping due to start in earnest in mid-November. Combined with strong south-easterly winds, we often see high numbers of dead youngsters on our beaches.”

Yet, she added, “we are faced with a dynamic and rapidly changing” environment. “We believe it is worthwhile to document and investigate the cause of events such as this one, where it could be an indication of the underlying health of the marine ecosystem.”

An ongoing avian influenza epidemic has killed thousands of seabirds, but there is thought to be no link between the two events.

Another growing concern is wildlife crime, Gridley said. “We’ve just had four different reports along the coast of wildlife crime related to people either taking parts of seals, or harassing sick-looking seals. That is against the law and should be reported.” 

Krynauw agreed. “There have been several reports further up the coast of seals being beaten to death or pups thrown into the water. I received a report of drunk-looking people kicking seal pups against rocks, or throwing them in the water. It’s just a horrific situation.” 

Sea Search and other NGOs are calling on the public to report sightings of dead seals to the Seafari app, the I-Naturalist app or to regional stranding networks and to include a photo, the date and the location to prevent double counting. Dead seals painted with dye means they have been counted and do not need to be reported. 

Sea Search also urged the public to keep dogs on leads when they encounter dead or sick seals on the beach, and to maintain a safe distance. “Seals are wild animals and protected by law. Do not attempt to approach or pick up sick seals, as they are strong and may bite out of fear,” it said.

Krynauw said the seals in the centre’s care, which are being hand fed, are doing well. “Eventually they’ll start getting their fish in the rehab pool and they will start hunting for themselves and then we will release them. That is, of course, another dilemma, because of what are we releasing them to, but anyway we hope for the best.”

Sightings of dead seals can be reported to [email protected] and report sick seals to [email protected]