• Fur seals are common in South Australia. There are significant populations on Kangaroo Island, and parts of the mainland coast. (AMCS) (Australian Marine Conservation Society)
A fishing community in South Australia is calling for a seal cull as burgeoning populations of the protected mammals threaten their catch.
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31 Aug 2015 - 3:39 PM  UPDATED 31 Aug 2015 - 7:45 PM

Fisherman Glen Hill says he’s been battling against an increasing number of long-nosed fur seals for almost a decade, and he’s had enough.

“The seals don’t belong here. They’ve got to go. They have to go,” he told SBS.

The co-owner of Coorong Wild Seafood said he first noticed long-nosed fur seals in his patch at Lake Albert, near the mouth of the Murray River, about eight years ago.

“Fifty seals will follow you around at night. One seal can pull out anywhere from 100 to 200 kilos of fish. You do the math. It’s impossible to deal with.”

“It’s just becoming bigger and bigger and bigger,” he said.

“Fifty seals will follow you around of a night. One seal can pull out anywhere from 100 to 200 kilos of fish.

“You do the math. It’s impossible to deal with.”

The Coorong is a vast lagoon ecosystem running for more than 140 kilometres along a coastal stretch about two hours’ drive southeast of Adelaide.

As well as a vibrant fishing industry, it’s home to the Ngarrindjeri Indigenous people, abundant wildlife and a community sustained by thousands of visitors a year.

Glen Hill’s wife Tracy Hill says the financial impact on the couple’s business has been immense. 

"We're probably running at about half of our normal production on a good week, so it really has drained the finances, and we've had to prop it up out of the savings from time to time to keep the employees paid,” she said. 

The seals have also upset traditional owners. Locals say they’ve been spotted attacking and killing local birds, including swans and pelicans -- the totems of the Ngarrindjeri people.

Like all marine mammals, the seals, which are also known as New Zealand fur seals, are protected.

“It’s good to see a large mammal in Australia recover. Most mammals in Australia are going downhill.”

Once endangered, their numbers have bounced back from over-harvesting during the early 19th century.

Peter ‪Shaughnessy of the South Australian Museum has spent most of his life observing and researching fur seals, and says their recovery has been slow but significant.

“It took a long while for them to recover, but we’ve been following their numbers since 1989, and they’ve been going up quite rapidly.”

“It’s good to see a large mammal in Australia recover. Most mammals in Australia are going downhill.”

Calls for seal culling

Now, an increasing number of frustrated locals want to see the seals harvested again, as a way to control their burgeoning numbers.

Liberal state MP Adrian Pederick is the Member for Hammond, which covers the Coorong.

He has tabled a petition to parliament with more than 1,500 signatures to have the seals sustainably harvested as part of a long-term management strategy.

“They’re not native to the river, they shouldn’t be there, and we don’t want them there,” he said.

He estimated “about 99 per cent” of people in his electorate support his position.

“Yes, there are a few people that don’t like the idea, but the realists in my electorate understand that it’s an action that needs to be taken.

Mr Pederick also said a sustainable harvest wouldn’t necessarily mean killing all seals in the Coorong.  

“I think it may only take a few [seals] to be harvested, and they’d get the idea that that’s not where they’re supposed to be, and they can head back out to sea where they belong,” he said. 

Glen Hill is among those who support the move.

“They have to go, so the answer has to be yes. I'm happy to explore other options -- I mean if we want to go, 'let's try and remove them', it's been tried elsewhere and it doesn't work but hey -- let's try it again.”

Deterrents and other options to be explored

The state Labor government has backed a plan to trial a range of deterrents to scare the seals away from fishing boats.

Sound devices and underwater firecrackers are among the methods being considered.

Those tactics are designed to help fishermen like Glen recover their catch, but there are also concerns a cull would attract unwanted negative attention -- and damage South Australia's lucrative natural tourism industry.

The Conservation Council of South Australia's chief executive, Craig Wilkins, says he believes all other options should be explored before killing all or some of the seal population.

"Any culling program is pretty brutal. It would have to be large numbers, and it's pretty horrific.

“We would have to think carefully before we go down that path."

Peter ‪Shaughnessy believes it will be very difficult to remove the fur seals by any method.

"If they want to cull the fur seals to keep them out of the Coorong, they're going to have to get rid of a very large number of them. If they just go and shoot the ones that are in the Coorong, others would go and swim back in."

“They’re not native to the river, they shouldn’t be there, and we don’t want them there.”

Neville Jaensch is the mayor of Coorong Council. He has seen firsthand the impact the seal population has had on the tiny community of Meningie, where many of the Coorong’s shallow-water fishing operations are based. 

He worries a lack of action could put lives at risk in an area already under stress from the impact of recent, prolonged drought.

"The Meningie scenario, particularly with the fishermen, the stress level on their families is appalling, as it was with the farming families during the drought and the lack of water."

Those concerns have grown in the wake of three suicides in the nearby community of Tailem Bend within a six-week period.

“The council is very concerned that if we don't act, we will regret it and there will be losses in the community,” Mr Jaensch said. 

Discussions over how to best deal with the seals are ongoing.

But fisherman Glen Hill says something must happen soon -- before his business, and his livelihood, goes under.

"It's more than a job. Farmers talk about it being a lifestyle. It's more than that. You live it all the time, it's your whole life. So, not having it ... I can't see it. I can't imagine it."