Cape fur seals bear the brunt of plastic pollution, new research shows

21 August 2021 - 15:27 By philani nombembe
Plastic fishing line and nets are causing horrific injuries to Cape fur seals and can result in slow, painful death.
Plastic fishing line and nets are causing horrific injuries to Cape fur seals and can result in slow, painful death.
Image: Dr Tess Gridley

Cape fur seals disentangled from fishing lines and nets “face a very painful and uncertain future”, a new study has found.

The study, based on work on the Namibian coast, was published this week in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

It was conducted by researchers and conservationists from Stellenbosch University, the Sea Search-Namibian Dolphin Project and Ocean Conservation Namibia. These are the first results from an ongoing project that was initiated in 2018.

It seeks to probe the impact of pollution on Cape fur seals in Namibia. The scientists investigated colonies at Walvis Bay and Cape Cross.

The scientist identified fishing lines and nets as major threats to the Cape fur seals “around the coastline of SA and Namibia, where they are endemic”.

The results reveal that the most affected animals are pups and juveniles “which were mainly entangled around the neck by fishing line”.

The scientists document 347 entangled animals between 2018 and March 2020. Of these, 191 were successfully disentangled.

Fishing line and nets are having a major impact on Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus), the most common marine mammal observed around the coastline of South Africa and Namibia, where they are endemic.
Fishing line and nets are having a major impact on Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus), the most common marine mammal observed around the coastline of South Africa and Namibia, where they are endemic.
Image: M Laubscher

“Plastic pollution and particularly lost and discarded fishing nets are having a big impact to marine life,” said Dr Tess Gridley, co-director of the Namibian Dolphin Project.   

“Once entangled, these seals face a very painful and uncertain future: finding food becomes harder and wounds can become deep and debilitating, and likely cause death in many cases.

A new study demonstrated that a high number of affected Cape fur seals were pups and juveniles, which were mainly entangled around the neck by fishing line.
A new study demonstrated that a high number of affected Cape fur seals were pups and juveniles, which were mainly entangled around the neck by fishing line.
Image: M Laubscher

“Changes to policy could help, such as financial incentives to recover lines, safe disposal of nets and sustainable alternatives to plastics.”

Stephanie Curtis, a research student with the Namibian Dolphin Project and lead author, deplored plastic pollution in the oceans.

“Seals should not have to suffer this way because of our carelessness with waste,” she said.

Fur seals are vulnerable to being entangled.

“They are very curious and playful animals and will investigate objects in the water, but their thick, backwards-facing fur which keeps them warm at sea easily snags lines and straps and stops it falling back off, ” said Dr Simon Elwen, co-director of the Namibian Dolphin Project.

Ocean Conservation Namibia’s Naudé Dreyer  said the problem continues.

“Since the start of 2021 we have already disentangled over 600 fur seals in only two colonies,” he said.

“This is the tip of the iceberg. It is imperative that studies such as this highlight the consequences of plastic waste on marine animals, and bring about change for the better.”

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