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Mystery Seal Mortality Along Namibian Coastline; Starvation Suspected Amid Protests Over Gov't Cull

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WINDHOEK, Namibia -- In the midst of a storm of international protest about Namibia's seal cull, Government yesterday put out a statement to say seals are dying in large numbers along the coast, apparently because of starvation.

Fisheries Permanent Secretary Nangula Mbako said in a statement yesterday that seal pups were not getting enough milk and their chances of survival beyond the weaning survival mass of 11 kg were almost zero.

Many dead and dying seals have been seen along Namibia's coastline.

The Ministry's announcement comes in the wake of the international campaign which has been heating up over Namibia's decision to continue to cull seals.

These groups include SealAlert-SA which has been active in the campaign to declare the cull "illegal, inhumane, unconstitutional and a threat to seal populations and the ecosystem", according to a statement released in June.

Their appeals have largely fallen on deaf ears as Namibia's government proceeded with the culling.

Meanwhile Mbako said yesterday scientific research had shown an increase of the Namibian seal population by more than 73 per cent since 1993.

"This implies that population numbers of these mammals have reached a stage where their current food source has become insufficient to sustain their livelihood," Mbako said.

The Ministry said researchers had noticed a mass migration of seals from their southern colonies to the northern fishing grounds because of food scarcity.

The lack of food for lactating mothers has resulted in reduced or complete lack of contact between the mothers and their pups.

"This indicates that the majority of pups in the south will not survive beyond the weaning period," Mbako said.

Some dead adult seals have been seen along the coast north of Cape Cross, and researchers have also observed aborted seal pups along the shore.

Mbako said the Ministry of Fisheries was mobilising resources to do an aerial survey in December to determine the pup numbers.

"Studies are being conducted to determine whether the die-offs are a consequence of any pathological infection or not.

If evidence of any pathologically induced infection is absent, we can with certainty cast the reason for the mass mortality on starvation," Mbako said.

Cabinet said recently that Namibia had 184 103 seal pups and 700 000 adults, which consumed an estimated 985 000 tonnes of fish in 2005, while the total annual landings of the Namibian fishing industry was generally between 500 000 and 600 000 tonnes per year.

The number of seals to be culled in Namibia has been increased from 5 000 bulls and 65 000 pups last year to 6 000 bulls and 85 000 pups between July and November this year.

The cull has prompted widespread outrage and protest from animal-welfare and conservation organisations worldwide.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said scientific studies, notably those from Canada, showed that over-fishing was most responsible for the demise of fish stocks, not predation by seals.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) threatened that Namibia ran the risk of international markets boycotting its fish products if the current approach to seal harvesting continued.

IFAW has commissioned an independent scientific study into the current status of southern African Cape Fur Seal populations.

The research is intended to show to what extent seal populations are being harmed by threats, including that of the fishing industry.

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