Devastated fishers ‘tearing their hair out’ over seals as cull calls go national

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Pressure is mounting on the South Australian government to consider a seal cull in the Coorong, where the livelihood of fishers has been devastated since the animals arrived in 2007. 

Member for Barker Tony Pasin said he represented around 70 full-time employees in the region’s fishing industry, telling federal parliament recently that he wanted the protected species culled in the area.

“We have to stop thinking of them as being native in the Coorong; they’re invasive in the Coorong,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“They’re the apex predator and, like anyone who can get an easy feed, they’ve grown in number.”

Seals basking on wooden planks.Seals basking on wooden planks.
The seals entered the Coorong and Lower Lakes in 2007 during the millennium drought.(ABC: Brittany Evins)

Mr Pasin said the seals, which first arrived during the millennium drought, had been ripping open fishers’ nets, loitering around boats, stealing catches and killing fish without eating them.

The growing seal population has also spread to the adjacent Lower Lakes, where they have been taking catches of carp and in July were spotted swimming more than 130 kilometres up the River Murray at Mannum.

Mr Pasin said he brought the issue to the attention of federal parliament because he wanted to clarify that, while the long-nosed fur seal was protected in Commonwealth waters, this did not include the Coorong, meaning there were no legal hurdles to a cull.

The local Ngarrindjeri population have in the past also pushed for a sustainable harvest of seals in the region or a catch-and-release program, saying the seals never lived in the area before and were killing the main local totem, the pelican, along with other native birds.

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SA government says no

The state government remains opposed to a cull, however, claiming it would be against “wider community values” and “damage the state’s reputation as a food producer and tourist destination”.

An online statement said overseas and interstate experience showed culling was an “ineffective way to reduce impact on fisheries” because it left an opening for another animals to move in and take advantage of available food.

The Department for Environment and Water (DEW) also said overseas operations to remove young seals and pups from breeding colonies had been “extremely unpopular”, and with seal products banned in the European Union, commercial sealing would unlikely be “profitable or socially acceptable”.

It also poured water on calls to move the animals, saying interstate seals, relocated by up to 400 kilometres, had returned within 10 days, with repeated attempts to shift them away being unsuccessful.

The government instead said it was continuing to work with the Southern Fishermen’s Association to develop non-lethal and humane methods, including funding research into “fishing gear transformations” and trialling underwater crackers to deter the animals.

Forced to fish at night

Coorong Wild Seafood co-owner Tracy Hill said their business had suffered significant losses as a result and had been forced to diversify to stay afloat.

She said her husband had changed his fishing practices and could only fish at night “where you can’t have any lights on at all”, not even a mobile phone light because it attracted the seals.

“Just recently there was a research project where they wanted us to use iPads to record where we were,” Ms Hill said.

“But my husband’s in a four-and-a-half-metre boat with wet hands in the middle of the night, trying to catch fish, setting gear, retrieving gear.

A close-up of a fish ripped in half.A close-up of a fish ripped in half.
Seals are also known to simply rip fish in half without eating them.(ABC: Leonie Thorne)

She said the industry had been “tearing its hair out” trying to deal with the problem, which was “having an impact on our community as well”, with some people opposed to any management of the seals.

“People have even accused us of killing penguins and blaming it on the seals,” she said.

Tearing out pelican bellies

State Liberal MP Adrian Pederick said a cull could be as low as 300 seals a year, but a broader picture would be to take an educational approach so the public fully understood the seals’ impact.

“It’s not just the commercial impact; it’s the huge environmental impact, whether it’s on the fairy terns, the pelicans and even the little penguins,” he said.

“We cull a whole range of native species when there’s an overpopulation, and I think it should come into play here.”

two seals sit looking at each other on a rocky shoretwo seals sit looking at each other on a rocky shore
SA’s long-nosed fur seals used to be known as the New Zealand fur seal.(ABC News)

Mr Pasin said none of the methods tried by the state government so far had improved the situation for fishers.

He further suggested it had double standards with regard to culling protected animals, pointing out that DEW had allowed a “commercial kangaroo harvest of just over 400,000 this year alone”.

“And if there were dingoes ravaging our merino flock beneath the dog-proof fence, something would get done about it immediately.

“Yet there is an disinclination to deal appropriately, humanely and efficiently, with long-nosed fur seals in the Coorong.”