Pretty relaxing seal in the beach, New Zealand
Pretty relaxing seal in the beach, New Zealand

Getting up close and personal with New Zealand seals is a popular activity of visitors to the coasts of New Zealand but in one of the country’s national parks, new limits are being put in place.

For at least the next eight years, no new seal watching tourism trips to two Abel Tasman National Park seal breeding colonies, the Tonga and Pinnacle seal breeding colonies, will be allowed by the country’s conservation watchdog, the Department of Conservation (DOC).

DOC’s Nelson/Marlborough marine specialist Andrew Baxter said the moratorium was for the well being of the seals. “Mothers and pups at breeding colonies are particularly vulnerable to being disturbed by tourist activity. Disturbance can cause mothers to abandon their pups,” he said in a statement.

In 2003, a 10-year moratorium on new permits for swimming with seals was declared along the Abel Tasman coast. That will now include no new permits for commercial seal viewing at Tonga and Pinnacle islands. Tonga Island receives the highest number of visits, largely by kayaks and water taxis, but the number of visitors has also been increasing at Pinnacle, a newer breeding colony.

The difficulty is that the peak of New Zealand’s summer – and tourism season – coincides with the time the fur seals use parts of the New Zealand coastline to rest and breed. “Unfortunately the tourist season and the breeding season of seals overlap perfectly,” Mr Baxter said.

As well, the number of areas visited by tourists has expanded. The Department was finding that visitors were moving away from the usual seal watching locations into areas where the seals were not so used to visitors, and therefore more prone to being disturbed.

“The thing with seals is that they are so accessible,” says Mr Baxter “Not everybody has got a boat, not everybody can afford to go out on a whale watch trip but everybody can wander along to [rocks where seal bask] and have a clamber around.”

Mr Baxter said the welfare of animals was the prime consideration in assessing permitting of commercial activities involving marine mammals. Under New Zealand legislation, factors such as commercial competition were not relevant and could not be taken into account.

The 2003 moratorium resulted from a DOC review of seal watching off the Abel Tasman and Kaikoura coasts, which also established a new minimum distance of 20 metres for people and vessels from seals on shore. Researchers observed that 63 per cent of mother and pup interactions at Tonga Island were disturbed by tourist activity. Seals also spent less time resting and more time actively swimming.

“At the conclusion of the 2003 review we stated that consideration would probably need to be given in the near future to a moratorium on new permits for commercial seal watching on the Abel Tasman coast,” said Mr Baxter. “That time has now come in relation to the breeding colonies.”

The Department will continue to consider applications for seal viewing elsewhere along the Abel Tasman coast where seals haul out but do not breed.


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