Wednesday, March 31, 2010


 Natureblog March 2010

I phoned a friend and his Scottish-born mother answered.  “He’s gone sealing,” she said.  “Sealing?” I asked.  “No”, she said, “sealing.”    I was unsure if this meant sealing the road or killing seals;  either seemed equally improbable since he owned neither a tar truck nor a seal club.  He did have a yacht though and he was away sailing.  It’s 1946 since anyone went sealing legally and this was just a single season after a gap of 22 years.  6,123 skins were taken from Fiordland and the Solander Islands, mostly by the crew of the Kekeno.  11 skins were collected from Otago and 53 from Westland giving a total of 6,187.  The season seems to have been called because Southland fisherman had come across a market for the skins in St Louis Missouri and so persuaded the government that seals were destroying the local fish stock.  They were then asked to organise a cull.  Very clever.

The first known sealing gang in Southland arrived at Luncheon Cove in Dusky Sound, Fiordland on 6 November 1792 on the Britannia commanded by William Raven.  They collected 4,500 seal skins which were taken to Sydney in 1793, the first commercial export from New Zealand.  During the life of the industry, it has been estimated the around a million seals were killed in New Zealand waters.
The skins were salted and eventually processed into fur garments.  There are two types of hair in a fur seal pelt - the long, grey hairs which give the seal its water-proofing, streamlining and characteristic colour, and shorter, finer hairs which trap air and provide insulation.  The skins were scraped on the inside until the bases of the long hairs were cut.  This hair was brushed out leaving the fine pelt which was trimmed and dyed.  There are said to be 300,000 hairs per square inch, resulting in a much denser fur than any available from land mammals.

The removal of so many seals would have had several effects on the ecosystem.  Other sealife, predated by seals would have increased, and muttonbirds were able to re-colonise more of the suitable nesting islands that had previously been kept flattened by frolicking seals.  At this time it is probable that Killer whales pods which depended on seals would have died out and been replaced by others relying on another food source.  Today stingrays are the main prey of New Zealand Killer whales which don’t eat seals at all.  
The seals that survived the slaughter were the ones that fled to sea as soon as men appeared.  These passed the scaredy-cat gene on to their offspring and so modern fur seals are much more wary of humans than they were 200 years back.

The seal population has recovered well, so well that they are a nuisance now to other primary industries.   Fishermen complain about seals taking fish and a stroppy seal in a salmon pen can eat a lot of dollars in a short time.  So is it time to start either culling or harvesting again?  An unofficial cull probably goes on with rogue animals being dealt to but is there a market for the fur and does the population need thinning?  Is it artificially high because of the lack of predator?
In some ways it is great that a population, once decimated, has recovered to the extent that we can harvest it.  In other ways a resumption of harvest takes us back to the bad old days, where exploitation quickly becomes over-exploitation.  We can’t eat them and there is a fair bit of feeling against killing animals just for their pelts.  Anyway, seals are popular with tourists – just watch the reaction of people seeing their first seals in Milford Sound or at Waipapa Point or Taiaroa Head – and the population, while large and growing, is still vulnerable to some dog diseases, to oil spills and loss through fishing practises such as the West Coast fishery which drowns some each year.
Let’s leave things as they are