In the 1800s, the population of New Zealand fur seals (endemic to Australia despite their name) was nearly wiped out, with nearly 100,000 seals being taken off the Kangaroo Island in south-central Australia due to commercial over-sealing.
Currently there are about 25,000 seals on the island and their numbers are increasing, which has seal conservationists jumping for joy. On the flip side, Kangaroo Island residents and the island’s Penguin Centre believe the higher number of seals is causing a decline in penguin numbers.
In recent weeks, about five penguins have been killed by seals in the Kingscote area, according to John Ayliffe, who runs the KI Penguin Centre. The Penguin Centre conducts penguin tours around the island and hosts informational talks about fish in their aquariums at the center.
The Centre worries that the decreasing number of penguins will discourage visits by tourists from the Northern Hemisphere and the organization has now proposed using shotguns to fire lead-filled beanbags at the seals to discourage them from entering penguin habitats and eating them.
“The beanbags are simply kevlar bags full of lead shot and they’re discharged by a shotgun,” said Ayliffe. “Now because the lead shot is in a kevlar bag, it hits the seal like a punch and it will not penetrate the skin provided it’s fired from sensible distances. Now seals are very smart and they move away from an area if disturbed.”
Ayliffe said there was a strong colony of penguins at Cape Gantheaume, but when the fur seals started breeding there, they ate all the penguins. He fears the penguins on Kangaroo Island will become locally extinct if there is nothing done to protect them.
Unfortunately for Ayliffe, the South Australia Environment Department does not support the idea. The Department issued this response:
Interactions between New Zealand fur seals and penguins are a natural phenomenon over which humans have little control. New Zealand fur seals are native to Australia and New Zealand, including Kangaroo Island waters, and the population is only now recovering from commercial sealing.
Conservation Councilor Tim Kelly said he understands the plight of the tourist industry on the island, but he reminds those vested in protecting penguins that the seal population still needs protection as well.
Kelly asked for people to take other threats into account such as dog attacks on the penguins and nest predation.
But Ayliffe remains firm on the position of culling seals. He said they do not only endanger penguin colonies, but other species such as cuttlefish and King George whiting.
Image from Liam Quinn on the flickr Creative Commons