Studying seals' reactions to boats lead to new regulations

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Studying seals' reactions to boats lead to new regulations

December 23, 2018 - 19:04
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A study into how seals react to tourism boats has prompted changes into ecotourism regulations in a bid to improve seal survival and welfare.

Seals on alert as a boat approaches.

When a tourist boat carrying curious tourists approaches a seal colony with the sole purpose of observing them in the wild, the seals won’t know of their well-meaning intentions.

All the seals would see are potential predators.

Chances are they would react defensively; so, if the boat approaches too close, the seals would flee into the sea, and this may cause a stampede or even loss of life by predation once they are in the water.

This are the findings of a study that aims to provide recommendations for management guidelines so that ecotourism does not clash with the animals’ welfare. The research team, which comprised Julia Back and Prof John Arnould of Deakin University, Dr Andrew Hoskins, CSIRO, and Dr Roger Kirkwood, Phillip Island Nature Park, published the findings in the journal Nature Conservation.

A breeding colony of Australian fur seals on Kanowna Island in northern Bass Strait was chosen for the study. The researchers observed, “The periods fur seals spend ashore at colonies are particularly important for resting, evading predators, molting, breeding and rearing young. Fleeing behaviors in themselves expend energy, and time spent in the water as a result of flight responses can also be energetically costly.”

They discovered that if their research boat approached the colony at a distance of 75m, the seals would “change posture, watch the object and remain alert and vigilant until the danger is gone." This reaction would be more pronounced in the morning and less so in the afternoon.

However, if the distance was reduced to 25m, many of the seals dove into the water. According to the press release: “This kind of reaction is particularly dangerous for the seals and especially their young, as these animals tend to perceive risk based on the responses of the individuals around them. In such a cascading response, a large-scale stampede is likely to occur, where pups could easily get trampled to death or fall from cliffs.”

As a result of the study, the management guidelines were updated: Now, boat approaches are restricted to 100m at Kanowna Island from March through October (during which the rearing of the pups takes place). In addition, vessels need to keep a distance of at least 200m during the breeding period.

Nevertheless, the authors noted that their findings are limited to a single colony and are therefore insufficient to make any generalisations about other species or even other Australian fur seal populations.

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