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Animal Protection and Conservation Organizations Unite with Harpseals.org in Lobbying the South African Government to Maintain the Moratorium on Killing Cape Fur Seals and to Institute a Ban on Trade of Seal Products

November 21, 2013

Mr. Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, President of South Africa
Mr. Kgalema Petrus Motlanthe, Deputy President of South Africa
Dr. Rob Davies, Minister of Trade and Industry
Ms. Tina Joemat-Pettersson, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries
Ms. Bomo Edna Molewa, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs

Dear Pres. Zuma, Dep. President Motlanthe, and Ministers Davies, Joemat-Pettersson, and Molewa:

We are writing to you as scientists and as non-governmental representatives of millions of people who are concerned about the survival, welfare, and rights of seals, including Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus). We would like to thank you for maintaining a moratorium on the state-sponsored killing of Cape fur seals in South Africa. We also would like to address issues that have been raised by some in South Africa in proposing that such a slaughter be resumed.

Cape fur seal numbers have not increased significantly since South Africa ended its annual slaughter of the population. During the past thirty years the population has suffered three mass die-off events (mainly in Namibia) due to a lack of available prey and is expected to continue to respond to fluctuations in prey availability related to climate phenomena such as Benguela Niño events and fishing pressure on their prey base. Cape fur seals are also subject to mortality from entanglement in fishermen’s nets, which leads to drowning, lacerations, and strangulation, and to illegal killing by fishermen.

Although some fishermen continue to blame seals for reduced catches, the scientific evidence, both from empirical and modeling studies, has discredited the idea that reducing populations of seals would increase populations of fish of commercial interest. Due to the complex interactions between many species, culling members of one high-level predator species may have no impact or even a negative impact on commercial fisheries. Though few studies have been conducted to assess the effects of particular seal culls on fish stocks, existing data, such as that obtained from a grey seal cull in Iceland from 1990 to 2002, show that even a reduction in the seal population of 66% had no apparent effect on the population of cod. Instead, it has been shown that predatory fish are by far the greatest predators of other fish, including those of commercial interest.

National and international policies can impact the health of fisheries now and for generations to come. Nations, including South Africa, should adopt a precautionary approach to fishing quotas, evaluating the sustainability of fishing quotas by accounting as thoroughly as possible for multi-species interactions, including marine mammals and birds.

In 2007, the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) Animal Health and Welfare Panel investigated the welfare aspects of seal hunts, including the Namibian seal hunt on Cape fur seals, on behalf of the European Commission (EC). The Panel’s Scientific opinion (published in the EFSA Journal, volume 610), formed the basis for the EC’s current stand against the import of seal products into the European Union. Some of the main welfare concerns of the Cape fur seal slaughter raised in the report are summarized in a 2010 paper published in the South African Journal of Science (http://www.sajs.co.za/sites/default/files/publications/html/166-1031-9-PB.html), with comparison made to other seal hunts such as Canada’s harp seal hunt. It is the size and density of the Cape fur seal colonies and the mobility of these animals on land that distinguish the killing of fur seals from other commercial hunts of seals, such as Canada’s harp seal hunt, which targets seals scatted across the ice on which they were born. Firstly, with regard to clubbing of fur seal pups:

“Because the probability of accurately striking a moving target is lower than for a more stationary one (especially on rough terrain), there is an even greater likelihood of ineffective stunning (clubbing) in the Cape fur seal hunt than in a harp seal hunt….. . Veterinarians representing the USA Endangered Species Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who were tasked with observing the Cape fur seal hunt in the early 1970’s, found that stunning was often ineffective; and, in many cases, several blows were landed before an animal was rendered unconscious, or animals were stunned so lightly that consciousness was regained or partially regained before bleeding out occurred.”

….and with regard to side-effects of the fur seal slaughter operation:

“Rounding up and driving seals, then containing the group while animals are released and clubbed, causes exertion and stress, both among the animals that are eventually killed and those that escape (including adult animals that are rounded up in the group and then allowed to escape). Pups held in the group are extremely tightly bunched and it is not uncommon for some to succumb to hyperthermia or suffocation before they can be clubbed. Besides the animals that are rounded up, disturbance also affects other animals in the colony, including lactating mothers and pups, with animals in the vicinity of hunting operations typically fleeing into the sea. Considering the nature of the hunting operations and their frequency and duration – hunting occurs at the same three colonies throughout the hunting season, from 1 July to mid-November – the stress associated with the disturbance can be defined as chronic. Chronic stress may lead to disruption of normal physiological function and suppression of the reproductive and immune systems. Behavioural effects of such disturbance are likely to include reduced nourishment of surviving pups, on account of disruption of nursing or even abandonment of pups, inducing hunger and potentially starvation.”

These concerns are especially applicable given the large numbers of pups that would need to be killed daily (several hundred) to provide profitable returns. It was concluded that this type of slaughter operation is

“inherently inhumane”. Further, the authors noted that “science-based guidelines for ‘humane slaughter’ will never be adequate to address the multifarious welfare concerns associated with this and other hunts that involve large-scale slaughter in crowded seal colonies.”

Since the EFSA report, a number of nations have enacted legislation that protects seals and prohibits imports of seal products. These include the nations of the European Union, Taiwan, and the Russian Federation, which joined the United States, Mexico, and others in protecting seals. We encourage the government of South Africa to likewise permanently ban the killing of seals and the international trade in seal products.

A recent scientific study that was published in the international journal Marine Mammal Science (vol 29 of 2012, pp 497-524) describes recent shifts in the distribution of the Cape fur seal population, including the development of several new breeding colonies on the mainland in northern Namibia, and also in southern Angola. Whereas changes in prey availability are likely to have been a key driver of these changes, the study postulates that disturbance associated with the slaughter operations at the three largest seal colonies in Namibia may also have stimulated dispersal of seals to new habitat, and the establishment and growth of several new breeding colonies, which can be seen as atypical because seals usually display fidelity to their colonies of birth or breeding.

The authors of this study noted that “Disturbance caused by commercial sealing (regulated since the early 20th century but uncontrolled before this….) at breeding colonies may have stimulated dispersal to new habitat and the establishment and growth of new breeding colonies, thereby inadvertently contributing to the population’s resilience to changes in prey availability.”

Therefore the establishment of new seal colonies in the northern parts of Namibia, adjacent to productive fisheries (especially for horse mackerel), may represent an unintended knock-on effect of the disturbance of seal colonies due to Namibia’s intensive slaughter policy. This would be extremely ironic given past statements by the Namibian government that the commercial seal slaughter in Namibia also serves as a cull to reduce the seal population in the interests of fisheries.

We urge the government of South Africa to give very careful consideration not only to the welfare concerns associated with large scale killing of seals, but also to potential ecological consequences thereof, which are very difficult to predict and, from evidence in many other situations including in Namibia, are rarely straightforward.

We respectfully request your assurance that you will maintain the current moratorium on the killing of Cape fur seals. Additionally, we look forward to your response to our proposal to join dozens of nations around the world in banning the trade in seal products. We would also welcome your support in calling for the Namibian government to cease its Cape fur seal slaughter.


Sincerely yours,

Diana Marmorstein, Ph.D., CEO, Harpseals.org

Mark Jones, BVSc MSc (Stir) MSc (UL) MRCVS, Veterinarian and Executive Director, Humane Society International/UK

Rebecca Aldworth, Executive Director, Humane Society International/Canada

Sheryl Fink, Director, Canadian Seal Campaign, International Fund for Animal Welfare

Marcelle Meredith, Executive Director, NSPCA, South Africa

Susan Hartland, Administrative Director, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society US

Pete Bethune, Founder, Earthrace Conservation

Eleanor Fox, Director, Earthrace Conservation Africa

Mark Berman, Associate Director, Earth Island Institute

Claire Bass, Oceans Campaign Leader, WSPA International

Pat Dickens, Campaign Manager, Seals of Nam

Anneke Malan, Chairperson, Fur Free South Africa

Alan Knight, OBE, BSc (Hons), Chairman of the Board of Trustees, British Divers Marine Life Rescue

Andy Ottaway, Director, Seal Protection Action Group

Liz White, Founder and Director, Animal Alliance of Canada

Mark Carter, BSc. Marine Science, DWCF, LBIPP, Consultant, Seal Scotland, MC, Marine Concern

Dr. Àlex Aguilar Vila, Full Professor, Vertebrates Unit, Department of Animal Biology, University of Barcelona, Spain

Prof. Rob Harcourt, Professor of Marine Ecology and Facility Leader, Australian Animal Tagging & Monitoring System, Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Dr. Denise L. Herzing, Research Director, Wild Dolphin Project, 2008 Guggenheim Fellow, Affiliate Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences and Department of Psychology, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida, U.S.A.

David M. Lavigne Ph.D., Dr. Philos., Marine Mammal Biologist, Guelph, Canada

Dr. Alan Springer, Research Professor, Institute of Marine Science, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska, U.S.A.

Susan C. Wilson, BSc, MSc, Ph.D., LLM, Chair, Seal Conservation Society, Research Director, Tara Seal Research, UK

Braam Malherbe, Conservationist, Author of The Great Run: Conquering the Sleeping Dragon, TV Presenter, Co-founder, Western Cape Fire Fighter’s Unit, South Africa

Linda Pannozzo, Award-winning freelance journalist and researcher, author of The Devil & the Deep Blue Sea: An Investigation into the Scapegoating of Canada’s Grey Seal (Fernwood Publishing, 2013), Canada




1. Punt, A.E. and D.S. Butterworth, (1995) “The effects of future consumption by the Cape fur seal on catches and catch rates of the Cape hakes,” South African Journal of Marine Science 16 pp. 255-285
2. Yodzis, Peter, (2001) “Must top predators be culled for the sake of fisheries?” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 16 pp. 78-87
3. Kirkman, S.P., Yemane, D. Oosthuizen, W.H., Meyer, M.A., Kotze, P.G.H., Skrypzeck, H., Vaz Velho, F., and L.G. Underhill, (2012), “Spatio-temporal shifts of the dynamic Cape fur seal population in southern Africa, based on aerial censuses (1972-2009),” Marine Mammal Science 29 pp. 497-524
4. Kirkman, S.P., Oosthuizen, W.H., Meyer, M.A., Kotze, P.G.H., Roux, J-P, and L.G. Underhill, (2007) “Making sense out of censuses and dealing with missing data: trends in pup counts of Cape fur seals between 1972 and 2004,” African Journal of Marine Science 29 pp. 161-176
5. Kirkman, S.P., and D.M. Lavigne, (2010) “Assessing the hunting practices of Namibia’s commercial seal hunt,” S. African Journal of Science 106:3/4
6. Morissette, L., Christensen, V., and D. Pauly, (2012) “Marine Mammal Impacts in Exploited Ecosystems: Would Large Scale Culling Benefit Fisheries?” PLoS ONE 7:9
7. Lavigne, D.M., (2003) “Marine Mammals and Fisheries: The Role of Science in the Culling Debate,” in Marine Mammals: Fisheries, Tourism and Management Issues. Ch. 2 pp. 31-47.
8. Wilson, S.C., (2002) “Seal-Fisheries Interactions: Problems, Science and Solutions,” a report commissioned by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue. http://www.bdmlr.org.uk/uploads/documents/reports/seal-fisheries-interactions.pdf
9. Morton D., et al (2007) Scientific opinion of the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare on a request from the Commission on the Animal Welfare Aspects of the Killing and Skinning of Seals. The EFSA Journal 610: 1–123. URL:


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