In the Republic of South Africa, the Cape fur seals (also known as South African fur seals) are considered "res nullius," meaning they have no owner, and therefore, they have no animal rights protection as they are not considered sentient beings.
Along the eastern coastline of South Africa, around the tip of Africa, and up along the west coast of South Africa, Namibia, and Angola a very productive fishing industry exists in a range of over 4,000 kilometers (approximately 2,500 miles). It is here also where Cape fur seals breed, and for decades fishermen have waged a war on these warm and loving creatures.
The Cape fur seal has been a protected species in South Africa since 1973 under the Sea Bird and Seal Protection Act (Act 46 of 1973) but, ironically, this act was never written to protect them, instead its purpose was to control who could kill them commercially. South Africa only suspended "culling" and clubbing of the seals in 1990.
Despite vast protests, Namibia has continued annually to club baby seals and shoot bulls. Here, seal pups are killed for their luxurious fur, and males (bulls) for their genitalia which is exported to the East as aphrodisiacs.
Between July and November each year some 85,000+ seal pups and 6,000+ male adults are killed in a process the Namibian authorities refer to as an annual "cull" - we call it execution because the animals have no chance to escape. Animals are herded in to a group after which pups are killed with crude wooden clubs and bulls die from a bullet to the head. Pups that are still nursing are killed - their fur is soft and luxurious.
Most sealers are seasonal employees picked from the poor and destitute, get paid a pittance and poorly trained (if at all). Pups are mostly stunned and then cut open (or stabbed in the heart) with a knife. Images of mother's milk running from the noses and mouths of these young animals have stunned the world as have images of mother's hovering over the bodies of their young.
"Cull" is a hunting method government conservation managers use to "control" a wild population of animals to bring what they perceive to be balance into an ecosystem, whereas a "harvest" has commercial and economic gain. The Cape fur seal, already a protected species, is currently dying in large numbers from starvation caused by Namibia's overfishing. Each year, concessionaires cannot reach the full given quota as there are simply not enough seals to kill. Yet, despite efforts of various activists, organizations and scientists, Namibia refuses to stop this practice. The authorities have on occasion stated that they don't take kindly to people trying to run their country.
Dangers Facing the Cape Fur Seal - Namibian Seal Slaughter
Globally, Namibia's seal slaughter is . . .
- the 2nd largest seal "hunt" by quota, but the largest by the number actually killed - the only nursing baby seal "hunt" - the largest massacre of endangered wildlife
Quota: Namibia's quota is always 90% baby nursing-pup based. In 2006, the kill quota was 85,000 pups and 6,000 bulls. For the subsequent four years, it is has been 80,000 pups a year and 6,000 bulls.
The Namibian seal population has suffered several mass die-offs from starvation since 1988, reducing the population by 50% in each incident. The starvation is a result of overfishing and gross mismanagement of Namibia's fish resources.
Where: Namibia is the only country in the Cape fur seal's range in which commercial hunting is permitted, as South Africa ended their "hunt" in 1990. Seal killing takes place on two mainland colonies, Cape Cross and Wolf/Atlas Bay, where 75 percent of the pups are born.
When: From July 1st through November 15th each year, commercial hunters hire approximately 160 part-time workers to take part in the slaughter.
How: Most pups killed are between the ages of 7 and 11 months. Hunters club the pups on the head with large, ice-pick-like clubs, and then stab them in the heart. The much larger bulls are shot.
Why: Investigation reveals an example of the not-so-surprising financial motive. In 2002, Namibia exported 112,000 seal skins, twice the number of the government quota and without a CITES export permit, consent, or approval. This prompted CITES to consider whether or not Cape fur seals should be selected for a Review of Significant Trade. The Cape fur seal is already listed on CITES Appendix II which includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.
Death by Fishermen
Thousands of seals each year drown in the fishermen's nets. Publicly-listed fishing companies deploy 65,000 trawl nets annually in South African waters alone.
The fishermen often use the foraging seals to locate shoals of pelagic fish and then surround the shoal along with the foraging seals (up to 100+ in numbers) in a net that gets closed from the bottom, trapping and drowning the seals, which then get winched aboard. Often seals caught in nets are severely beaten to death and then dumped.
The South African Commission on Sealing found as many as 30,000 are drowned by one sector in a 13-sector fishing industry. Adding Namibia would double that number.
Deadly Ocean Trash
For decades fishermen have discarded fishing line, bits of rope, netting, etc., entangling and mutilating thousands of seals annually. By far the most common entanglement of seals is that caused by the plastic loops used to hang-up tuna for freezing. When the loops are discarded, often with the fish tails still attached, they find their way to the oceans appearing as a food source to the seals, and result in many seal mutilations and slow agonizing deaths.
Fish processing factories make the loops by tying plastic rope into loose loops, and they then hand them to arriving fishermen to hook the freshly caught tuna/longfin fish by its tail on a hook, to be processed and freezer blasted for export/consumption. Tens of thousands loops are manufactured yearly (or as many individual fish as are caught in a season).
To South Africa's agency Marine and Coastal Management's credit, included in the Fishing Regulations for Handline/Pole Tuna Fisheries is a stipulation to not make the loops bigger than approximately 3 inches. The regulations outline the size of these loops/strops and that they should be double-knotted (see picture with "checkmark" and "x").
Because the seals are ocean-swimming marine mammals, locating them and disentangling them is nearly impossible except for the very lucky few. They cannot be darted with a tranquilizer or easily capture in a net.
Between 250,000 and 500,000 (half the population) seals die of starvation due to the overfishing of South African and Namibian fishermen.
There has been no growth in the seal population - the number of seals has declined by over a million since population surveys started in 1971.
Almost all fish species are severely depleted. Sixteen line-fish species are considered over-exploited or collapsed. Pelagic fish (sardine, anchovy, pilchards) - the building block of the South African coastline food-chain - is in severe collapse. High takes of 1.5 million tons in the late 1960s are today zero.
In the early 1960s, South Africa allowed numerous foreign factory ships to operate off the coast within territorial waters without quotas (Russian, Spanish, Japanese, etc). This destroyed the bio-mass and unique ecosystem balance of the marine food-chain, particular the pelagic fish. Fifty percent of what was taken was turned into fishmeal for the livestock and pet-food industries. Most foreign fleets are now banned, but the damage is permanent, and Japanese fleets still harvest tuna and shark fin.
Because of antiquated (one-sided) laws, fishermen are allowed to carry weapons and explosives on their fishing trips for fear of piracy, but this is merely a cover for them to be able to kill the seals which the fishermen believe are "taking their fish."
The Seal Protection Act of 1973 deems it a criminal offense to shoot a seal, although no fishermen has ever been arrested or convicted since this law came into effect.
No official count exists of this type of killing - because it is illegal to kill a seal in this way, nobody reports it when it happens. The numbers are thought to be quite high as there are 30,000 active commercial fishermen, and it is common knowledge that all have killed seals with firearms.