Save the fur seals

Fur seals are top predators in marine ecosystems and therefore they are sensitive to human induced environmental changes. If we manage to save the fur seals – it means we managed to protect their environment. Fur seal are an important flagship species for marine conservation.

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Page author: Stefan Austermühle

Historic threats to fur seals

Fur seals have been hunted in the past because of their fur, leather and oil, as well as for the sale of their genitals to the Asian market. Between 1873 and 1983, at least 750,000 fur seals have been hunted in Uruguay. In 1991, seal hunting was prohibited. On the Falkland Islands, US-sealers killed thousands of fur seals by the end of the 18th century.
In Peru, there exists historical records of the capture of around 800,000 pinnipeds between 1925 and 1946, but the statistics do not differentiate between fur seals and sea lions. In Peru, sealing was prohibited from 1958 to 1962. In 1964 sealing was prohibited again.

In January 1975, Peru signed the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and the southern fur seal was included in Annex II.

Present threats for southern fur seals

Illegal killing of fur seals: competition with fisheries

Artisan fishermen in Peru claim that Fur seals and sea lions damage fishing nets and steal captured fish, especially in fisheries with gill nets. Even though it is known that this kind of interaction mainly occurs with sea lions, fur seals are held responsible too, by the fishermen. As a reaction to the supposed competition, artisan fishermen illegally kill sea lions and fur seals by clubbing them to death, poisoning or shooting them, as well as using dynamite.

The Peruvian NGO ORCCAMM analyzed between January 2002 and March 2004, 160 dead sea lions and fur seals, found on beaches along the Peruvian coast. 61.25% of the specimen had died because of human activity. sea lions had been the most affected: 40.2 % had been clubbed to death and 21 % were by-catch victims. 35.7 % of fur seals had been shot or clubbed to death.

The beaches south of the capital, Lima, as well as Lagunillas Beach within the National Reserve of Paracas have been the places where most of the killing occurred. 56.43% of the animals found here shown to have wounds from clubs on the head and dorsal muscles. The results clearly showed that not by-catch but intentional illegal killings have the biggest impact on pinnipeds in the near shore areas.

Illegal killing – aphrodisiacs for the Asian market

The killing of sea lions and fur seals in order to sell their genitals as aphrodisiacs for the Asian market of traditional medicines is another growing threat. 8.57% of the cases of dead, stranded sea lions analyzed by ORCCAMM (see above) had their genitals cut off. Between September and October 2002, one of the biggest illegal killings of sea lions had happened in recent years in Peru. Fishermen killed 147 sea lions on San Gallan Island in the National Reserve of Paracas, only to cut off their genitals and leave the rest of the bodies unused.

The demand for tradititional medicines makes this kind of illegal killing an international problem. In 2005, for example, 35 sea lions were killed on the Island of San Cristóbal, one of the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, in order to extract their genitals.

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Page author: Stefan Austermühle

By-catch of fur seals:

Small scale driftnets cause sea lion and fur seal deaths when placed in areas used by the species. The magnitude of these losses are unknown.

Conflict with industrial fisheries

The development of the industrial fisheries in Peru endangers the sustainability of fisheries and leads to over-fishing of natural resources. In the case of Peru, the fish meal industry fishes anchovies, the main prey of sea lions and fur seals. As a consequence, population size (additionally impacted by natural El Niño events), is dwindling.

While historically, populations could recover fast from El Niño events because of the presence of great volume of anchovies, nowadays recuperation is not possible as the fishmeal industries catches away the natural prey and causes a state of permanent scarcity of food, leading to ongoing reduction of the pinniped populations. Fish meal industries nowadays are the biggest threat to the survival of pinnipeds, as well as other marine species in Peru.

Chemical contamination and trash:

Pollution affects sea lion DNA in Argentina – Scientists from Argentina and Italy have discovered that South American Sea lions at the port of Mar del Plata, Argentina, have been so affected by hydrocarbons and heavy metals that their DNA is being altered. The research, which was carried out on 84 Sea lions at the port, also found them to be suffering from complaints, such as skin infections, conjunctivitis, rhinitis and alopecia. Scientists fear that the genetic damage could be transmitted to the Sea lions’ offspring with the resultant possibility of mutations.

Another reason for the death of pinniped specimens is the growing contamination of the oceans with plastic trash. Animals become entangled in plastic bags, ghost nets and other trash floating in the water and may strangle themselves to death or loose extremities, causing deadly infections. Males are most affected by this problem due to the great quantity of thick fur that does not allow the plastic to be taken off the neck, once entangled.

Habitat loss and coastal urbanization

Another threat to pinnipeds is the growing human presence along the Peruvian coast, displacing them from their natural breeding grounds, not only on land but also on the islands. Nowadays, more than 70 % of the Peruvian population lives along the coast, causing not only physical disturbances but also great amounts of marine contamination by domestic and industrial sewage.
In Peru, sea lions and fur seals have already abandoned many reproduction sites on firm land. Nowadays, up to 95% of the population live in protected areas and on the guano islands.

Save the fur seals

Mundo Azul and several other national and international conservation groups had been lobbying for more than nine years for the declaration of the marine protected area “National resrve Guano Islands” (Reserva Nacional Islas y Puntas Guaneras). The guano islands are home to most of the fur seal breeding colonies. Finally on the 30 of december 2009 the Peruvian government officially declared the area. Mundo Azuls future work will be to support the Peruvina government and all other interested parties in the sustainable management of the marine protected area.

The creation of this marine protected area was a first and important step towards a better protectoion of fur seals in Peru. However more must be done:

  • Industrial fisheries must be reduced to levels below maximum sustainable yield in order to create more food available for fur seals.
  • Small scale fishermen must stop killing fur seals and must stop demanding their culling. In order to reach this, the artisan fishermen associations in Peru, such as the FIUPAP must stop their polemics against sea lions and fur seals. Instead, they must promote the conservation of marine mammals. Sea lions and fur seals should not be used as scapegoats for human overfishing. They are not the reason for diminishing fish catches in Peru.
  • By-catch and mortality due to plastic garbage must be reduced.
  • Fur seals are an important tourism attraction and coastal tourism involving local fishermen must be promoted as an economic alternative for local coastal communities.
  • The Peruvian government must seriously evaluate the real damage on fishing nets caused by fur seals and a viable system of compensation payments for fishermen must be put in place.

Marine ecotourism is a great way to help conserving marine mammals. Take a tour and swim or dive with sea lions in Peru with our associated travel operator Nature Expeditions.

You can also become a conservation volunteer with Mundo Azul


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Page author: Stefan Austermühle




Related links:

Dive and swim with sea lions

Natural history of sea lions

Save the sea lions

Natural history of fur seals

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