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As my fellow Sciblogger Brendan Moyle has already posted about, most news websites are carrying the horrifying news that 23 seals have been found by DOC works clubbed to death on the Kaikoura Coast.

Now, as you may know, seals are protected by law in New Zealand – it is illegal to hunt, harm or kill seals in this country.

So when attacks resulting in the type of scenes portrayed in the photos below (scroll no further if you are squeamish) come to light, New Zealanders tend to unite in a collective outpouring of hurt and outrage.

Why would people do such a thing – other than for wanton sick thrills?

Well, in a few remaining parts of the world (namely Namibia and Canada), seals are still hunted on a regular basis. According to the Associated Press, the Namibian Government believes the regular cull necessary to preserve fish stocks.

Now when you strip out the other potential reasons for killing seals – taking their skins and flesh to sell, the concern over fish stocks, justified or not, appears to be the main motive for clubbing the poor animals to death. Tens of thousands are killed by the Namibians alone.

And elsewhere, the fish stocks angle also seems to reign supreme. Take this story from the UK, where a Shetland fisherman was prosecuted for killing 21 seals. Why did he do it? He never really explained, but he seems to be claiming he thought they were starving.

Here’s a similar report from Ireland – again pointing to the turf war going on between fishermen who perceive seals to be a threat to fish stocks.

About 60 grey seals, most of them pups, have been culled off the Kerry coast, wildlife officials reported today.

The Irish Seal Sanctuary blamed local fishermen for killing the animals because they eat fish, and are therefore their “competitors” for fish stocks.

’There’s only one direction the finger can be pointed at: the fishing community,’ said group spokesman Sean Eviston, who travelled to Beginish Island off the coast of the Dingle peninsula to confirm reports of the cull.

Eviston said the grey seals killed were mostly ’whitecoats’, pups about three weeks old. He said the attackers appeared to have used several methods to kill, including gun shots, beating the animals with rocks, and driving nails into their skulls.

Seals have in the past been blamed for the collapse of fisheries (such as in the North Atlantic), but research suggests there’s actually reasonably little overlap between the types of fish humans are after, and the fish that makes up the diet of seals. This New Scientist piece explains further:

The first global study of its kind, released earlier in May 2004, shows that marine mammals and fishing fleets rarely prey heavily on the same fish stocks. The findings are provisional, but they suggest that scientists and policy makers should only rarely need to make a wrenching choice between the economic needs of fishers and their desire to protect threatened marine mammals.

So if the motivation for killing these seals is to protect local fish stocks, the perpetrators may be misguided at best.

Over at the Science Media Centre, we asked Dr Bruce Robertson, Senior Lecturer in Zoology at the University of Otago, what the impact on the seal colony subject to the attack:

Fur seals numbers are gradually increasing around NZ following their near extirpation due to indiscriminate sealing in the 1800s. Many of the breeding colonies that we have now, have only recently been recolonised. For example, Ohau Point became a breeding colony in 1990 and in 2004 there were an estimated 600 pups born there.”

“While 23 seals were killed (as reported), the real number of deaths is likely to be greater.

“This is because females at this time of year are most likely to have a pup and these pups are totally dependent on their mother’s milk for survival. So if the mother is killed the pup will die. Also, females mate about a week after giving birth and hence have a developing embryo in the womb (i.e. next year’s pup), which also would be killed. The total loss of life is more like: 13 females, 13 dependent pups, 13 developing embryos, plus the 8 pups and the 2 males = 49 fur seals. This does not take into account the future reproductive success of these individuals.

“Given this colony is increasing in size, this loss of life is a small setback. However, large mammal populations cannot sustain the repeated loss of breeding females. Consequently, any external influences can be detrimental.”

Mike Morrissey and seal pups  source: Department of COnservation

Mike Morrissey and seal pups source: Department of COnservation

Phil Bradfield and seals  Source: Department of Conservation

Phil Bradfield and seals Source: Department of Conservation