Fur seal populations on the road to recovery

Australian and New Zealand fur seal populations in Victoria are recovering after being on the brink
By Phoebe Baldwin March 4, 2015 Reading Time: 2 Minutes

IN A GOOD NEWS conservation story, two species of seal living on Victoria’s south west coast are coming back from the brink of extinction.

The two species, the Australian fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus) and the New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri), live alongside each other at Cape Bridgewater where they are a popular sight for tourists and locals alike. The seals were hunted heavily from 1798 to 1923 as a result of commercial sealing.

A survey in the mid-nineties recorded just a single seal pup in the area, resulting in the colony being assigned ‘non-breeding’ status. But the return of a healthy population of seals has been recorded in surveys by research teams from Parks Victoria, Phillip Island Nature Parks and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

In 2010 when 47 Australian fur seal pups were recorded in the cave and 42 New Zealand fur seal pups on the platform. This year, 129 Australian and 109 New Zealand fur seal pups were recorded, indicating the population is on the mend.

Sheltered breeding site important for fur seal recovery

The sheltered nature of this breeding site is an important factor in the comeback of the seal population, says Dr Rebecca McIntosh, from Phillip Island Nature Parks, one of the researchers keeping track of the seals.

“We think it’s the increased susceptibility to disturbance from land predators and humans that has prevented fur seals from establishing mainland breeding locations. So we’re really pleased that both the populations are doing so well at Cape Bridgewater,” she says.

There are only 10 breeding colonies of the Australian fur seal. The other sites span locations across Victorian and Tasmanian islands in the Bass Strait. This makes Cape Bridgewater unique, says Parks Victoria ranger Marcel Hoog Antink.

“This is the only mainland breeding colony for both these two different species. All other colonies for both groups exist on offshore islands. It’s a wonderful location to see both species living harmoniously next to each other, especially when they have quite different personalities – the Aussies like lying around next to each other, but the New Zealanders have a ‘don’t get too close’ attitude,” he says.

The rock platform and cave the two species share at the base of some Victoria’s highest cliffs are visible from the lookout above. Seal numbers are highest in summer because they migrate north in the colder months.

The conservation status of both species is still vulnerable due to the ongoing threats of plastic debris, oil spills, and fishing equipment.