No investigation needed into number of dead seal pups

14 Sep 2021

A call has gone out for the Department of Conservation to investigate what is behind the heartbreaking scenes of dead and dying seal pups being washed up on Coromandel beaches.

The Department of Conservation said that they would consider mounting an investigation if they saw a spike in the number of dead seal pups on the beaches. However, that stage had not been reached.

On the local Hahei Facebook community page there have been extensive comments and concerns about malnourished young seals being found on the foreshore. Residents say that while they occasionally find a distressed or dead seal pup at this time of year when they are being weaned before striking out on their own, this year has seen a big increase in numbers, and they are asking why.

Hahei local, Ray van Beynen, told The Informer, “We walk the beach almost every day and we just noticed more than usual seal pups that are being washed up in a quite malnourished condition. Normally, you might get one a year or maybe two, but so far this year, as far as we are aware there have been two or three at Tairua, two at Hot Water Beach, three or four at Hahei, one at Cathedral Cove and one just past the end of Lees Road (west of Hahei) and there may be more.

“At this time of the year their mothers are weaning them, but it just seems that there are an awful lot of them ending up dead on the beach.”

Ray said that DOC told him to “just let nature take its course,” that there were thousands of baby seals around the coast at this time of year and some got separated from their mothers or were not able to feed. “What happens is that a malnourished one will get washed up on the beach and then it will go out to sea again, and then you will find it a day or two later dead on the beach,” he said.

Ray had been in contact with people around the Coromandel or read on their Facebook posts about the same thing happening where they live. It was of such concern that he felt the higher incidence of pup deaths warranted investigation to find out the cause. “It is just that we are getting a much larger number which might indicate another problem of some sort - lack of food or having eaten something they shouldn’t have or there is a virus of some sort going through the seal population which is making them ill,” he said. “I think it would be good for DOC to recover a couple of bodies and do an autopsy to try to determine what was the cause of death.”

Nick Kelly, DOC’s Coromandel Operations Manager, said there were many seals along the New Zealand coastline at any given point in time, but from August was when we see more juvenile seals which had been weaned and were dispersing into new areas. “They have often swum huge distances and just need a quiet place to rest,” he said. “Some do it a bit tougher than others and seal pup mortality within the first year could be as high as 50 per cent with starvation being the biggest cause of mortality. 

“That’s why some of the Coromandel’s coastal residents will have encountered dead seals on some of the beaches, an upsetting sight, and a reflection of the realities of wildlife and nature. Weather and sea conditions, and available food sources, are the most common factors in seal mortality.

“If we saw a significant spike in seal carcasses along our coastline, we would look to liaise with relevant DOC staff and other agencies such as the Ministry for Primary Industries to determine what the cause of the deaths might be. We don’t believe we’re at that point with the discovery of dead seal pups on the Coromandel this season,”

Despite the high infant mortality rate, seal numbers were recovering well from being hunted to the brink of extinction in the 1800s. “Although seal populations are making a gradual recovery, there’s not necessarily more seals this year - people are just out noticing them,” Nick said. “They live here too.”

Ray said that local residents had not made any attempt to rescue seal pups nor feed them. At Hahei some residents had made a circle in the sand around pups that were still alive and had posted signs encouraging dog owners to keep their dogs on a lead so as not to harass the stricken animals.

Pictured: A seal on the rock wall at Buffalo Beach in Whitianga.