What is a New Zealand fur seal? The New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) is an ‘eared’ seal, as can be seen by its ear flaps. It differs from earless or ‘true’ seals such as leopard seals, which have no external ear flaps and cannot use their hind legs when on land – they have to wriggle instead.
What does it look like? New Zealand fur seal has a more pointed snout than the Australian sea lion and is a darker grey to brown colour. The bulls have mane can weigh 120-180 kilograms and reach up to 2.5 metres in length and are much larger than the cows, which are only 35 to 50 kilograms and only one to 1.5 metres long.
Where does it live? The New Zealand fur seal is found in the proposed Ngari Capes Marine Park and along other parts of Australia’s southern coast but, as its name suggests, it is found in greatest numbers in New Zealand.
What they eat and how: This species has a liking for squid, octopus and a variety of schooling fish, which it takes in the water, but it sometimes also eats seabirds such as penguins and shearwaters. The mostly feed at night, and rest during the day. Fishing trips may last for several days.
Behaviour: New Zealand fur seals are wild animals and are capable of delivering an injury that would be similar to that resulting from a dog bite.
Breeding and caring for young: New Zealand fur seals breeding between late November and mid-January, with most pups born in December. Bulls fight for access to females and form ‘harems’ of up to eight cows. Females produce a single black pup about 60 centimetres long. They remain with it for about ten days, then leave to feed at sea, returning regularly to suckle. Pups are weaned within a year.
Conservation status: New Zealand fur seals had been wiped out from most parts of Western Australia’s southern and western coasts by sealers by the 1850s. It has been estimated that around 1.5 million fur-seals were killed between 1792 and 1948 within the Australasian region. The sealers, working from small boats, made their way progressively along the southern coast, killing fur seals on the islands and rocky headlands, shooting or clubbing them to death. The thick underfur evolved by the fur seals in response the cold waters of the Southern Ocean increased their commercial value. A single skin could fetch 15 shillings at King George Sound in 1842. Such high returns encouraged unrestrained slaughter, with females, males and even pups all taken by the sealers. A population on the Flinders Islands near Augusta only reappeared during the 1980s, and a few fur seals later made their way to the rock further north. New Zealand fur seals reappeared on a small rock off the Leeuwin-Naturaliste coast, which is a proposed marine park, in small numbers about 15 years ago, after having been wiped out by sealers more than 150 years before. They have been increasing in number there ever since, with 30 to 40 fur seals seen on the rock in recent years. They have now even made their way as far north as Rottnest Island and the Jurien Bay Marine Park.
Protecting New Zealand fur seals: Boaters should keep well away from rocks on which fur seals haul out, as they can disturb the seals by forcing them to dive into the water. Furseals occasionally appear on beaches and, if this occurs, people should stay clear of them. People should make sure that dogs are kept well away from them, with both the seals and dogs being at risk of injury. The proposed South-West Capes marine park will stretch from Busselton to Augusta, right around the Leeuwin and Naturaliste capes, and take in both the Flinders Islands and the more northern fur seal colony and so should greatly improve management of the two New Zealand furseal colonies within this area. Threats to the species include oil spills, entanglement in rubbish and nets, and competition with people for resources. Hundreds of New Zealand fur seals in the Archipelago of the Recherche had to be rescued and the oil removed from their fur in an operation lasting several weeks after the wreck of the Sanko Harvest on 14 February 1991.
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