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It’s drizzling in Hout Bay, a dreary winter’s day. Still, the buses are pulling up and the tourists clamber on to the tour boats that will take them to the islands.
“Come see the seals in their natural habitat!” is the rallying cry. And the tourists are happy to pay – for the tickets, for the photographs, for the harbour-side restaurants, for the locally made curios.
Seals, it seems, equal money.
At the far end of the harbour, in his dimly-lit seal rehabilitation centre, Seal Alert SA founder Francois Hugo inserts a tube down the throat of a mewling pup.
“These are my babies,” he says, emptying a 2-litre fish smoothie down a funnel. The pup chugs it greedily. More line up, baying loudly for their grub.
This is how Hugo spends his days, how he’s spent every day since he came across his first injured seal in 1999 – fetching hurt seals and abandoned pups, treating them, feeding them.
It was in researching the history of seal exploitation in southern Africa that he latched on to the Namibian sealing controversy.
last year he filed for an urgent interdict with the Namibian ombudsman to stop the country’s annual seal harvest.
Starting this Sunday and continuing for 139 days, up to 80 000 pups will be beaten to death for their fur.
And 6 000 bulls will be shot, and their genitals removed and sold to the east as aphrodisiacs.
It’s a number which activists argue is far too high, contradicting the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources’ (MFMR) own mandate of sustainable utilisation.
The quotas of pups to be killed each year – or total allowable catches (TACs) – are determined using a mathematical model that considers the results of aerial censuses and the rate of early pup mortality within the first few months of life, determined on the ground by researchers.
This rate is generally between 20 and 30 percent mortality, though environmental anomalies may skew the figures. In the mid-1990s, two of these back-to-back events wiped out up to a third of Namibia’s seal population.
Considering this, scientists submit recommendations to the ministry – in secret – and the minister decides on the year’s quotas.
Only, according to Hugo, the government figures aren’t adding up.
For example, the results of the aerial census in December 2005 showed a count of 65 000 at Cape Cross, one of the three harvesting sites. Adjusting for rocks, shadows, deaths before the census and births after, scientists estimate about 80 000 pups were born that season.
About 50 000 of those were to be harvested. But if 30 percent of the pups died before the harvesting season – a reasonable estimate most years – only 56 000 pups would still be alive at the start of the seal season. If the TAC were fulfilled, nearly the entire pup cohort for that colony would be killed.
“Using the government’s own figures, this is unsustainable,” insists Hugo.
Big quotas, however, are linked to the promise of more jobs.
The sealing industry is estimated to support fewer than 100 unskilled, part-time labourers for the 4½-month-long harvest each year – but this is not to be dismissed in a country with 51 percent unemployment.
Still, sealing companies themselves cried foul earlier this year when Fisheries Minister Bernard Esau announced that three more concession holders had been granted licences to harvest alongside the existing three concessionaires. The move would provide more jobs, he said.
But in an argument echoing that of the activists, sealers said the seal biomass would simply not sustain the move, that it would cause job losses instead.
“There are not enough viable colonies to sustain more rights holders,” Wolf Bay and Atlas Bay concession holder Willem Burger told a local newspaper, The Namibian.
“The industry will not make it; in fact, it will bleed to death economically.”
A new study, in press for the Marine Mammal Science journal, raises the question: is the industry causing its own downfall?
Scientists noticed a decrease in the seal populations at two of the harvest sites, Atlas Bay and Wolf Bay, near Lüderitz in the south of Namibia, over the years.
The overall population in the northern Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem (BCLME), however, remained constant.
The seals weren’t being culled to extinction, the study said. They were migrating north, extending their range by 680km between 1990 and 2009.
Prey availability was the key: the fish were moving north, the seals were following.
But the study also noted that human disturbance associated with sealing may have played a part. The government’s return to the same three colonies year after year could be providing that added stimulus for the animals to seek new habitats in more remote locations, less accessible to the sealing industry.
Ironically, the government’s insistence on pursuing sealing seems to be making the seals resilient to environmental changes and human interference, while slowly leading the Namibian sealing industry to extinction.
Not that the industry was in a healthy state to begin with.
Unprocessed Cape fur seal pup pelts are valued at about $6 (R50) each, while the bull genitals sell for about $139 (R1 171). The real money is in selling the processed furs – but Namibia doesn’t see any of it.
Instead, all the pelts are bought, processed and resold by the Turkish-Australian “King of Fur”, Hatem Yavuz – incidentally also Namibia’s honorary consul to Turkey.
But when the EU banned the import of all seal products in 2009 and the small market still open to seal furriers closed, Yavuz made an offer to Hugo: buy us out and we will stop the harvest. The sale did not go ahead. As the industry turned to the east, so did the activists, and campaigns to have seal products banned are under way in Turkey, Russia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China.
Even a seal leather shoe-making factory in Windhoek itself has closed down – dead seal is no longer the commodity it used to be.
A study by a group of environmental economists in Australia proposed a solution.
Commissioned by various animal welfare groups, the Economists at Large report compared the viability of seal killing versus seal watching. In 2008, said the report, sealing in Namibia generated about $513 000 in exchange for 58 000 dead pups and 5 500 dead bulls. In the same year, seal watching activities attracted about 100 000 tourists, and generated just more than $2 million in direct tourism expenditure.
“In contrast to seal hunting, the seal watching appears to have much greater prospects for growth in Namibia,” read the report. “The benefits of seal watching also accrue to a wider group of economic participants in Namibia.”
Just as in Hout Bay – the tickets, the photographs, the harbour-side restaurants, the locally made curios.
For a country with nature conservation written into its constitution, eco-tourism makes sense.
A sit-down between all stakeholders is required, to thrash out all the socio-economic, ecological and political issues involved.
It might just result in a way forward everyone can agree on.
More importantly, it will add an element of transparency to the government’s dealings with Cape fur seals. The mass die-off of 2006 was the last publicly acknowledged by the government.
Population data from the required censuses have been kept secret since then – and even ombudsman John Walters has been left uninformed.
Walters repeatedly delayed his findings on the harvest, saying he was still waiting for the December 2011 census data used to determine the harvesting quota.
The ministry ignored his request.
Last Friday, nine months after originally promised, he released his report – still without this data.
“I am unable to make a definite finding on the two opposing accounts of whether Namibia is ‘guilty’ of unsustainable utilisation of its seals or not,” he said simply.
The possibilities of eco-tourism?
“I did not research the economics of seal hunting and seal watching in Namibia and cannot comment thereupon.”
However, Walters did make recommendations: allow the pups to settle down before they’re released and clubbed, bleed them out immediately, train the sealers to a specific competence.
And, yes, the data on seal population sizes, quotas and actual numbers of seals harvested ought to be published annually.
But was the annual chasing, rounding up, beating and shooting of seals animal cruelty? No, he said.
The Animal Protection Act (APA) defines animals as “domestic animals and wild animals in captivity or under the control of any person”.
But as the sealers could not adequately control the panicked and fleeing seals during harvesting, Walters decided Cape fur seals do not fall under the APA’s definition of an animal.
As such, those beating them to death are not guilty of animal cruelty.
The Namibian seal harvest of 2012, he decided, will go ahead on Sunday.