AFTER a successful breeding season, surveys and studies are being undertaken to help monitor Phillip Island’s famous fur seal population at Seal Rocks.
Phillip Island Nature Parks’ marine scientist PhD, Rebecca McIntosh, recently spent four days at Seal Rocks with two PhD students to conduct a new study on the population.
“The breeding season finished around the end of December, so we only go out once all the males have calmed down and are no longer aggressively defending the females,” Ms McIntosh said.
“We have two PhD students working on different aspects of the fur seal population, and one of them is looking at how vessels or boat visitations affects them.”
Ms McIntosh said as Seal Rocks can become inundated with tourists attempting to get a glimpse of the seals during summer, many aren’t aware of the regulations.
“Recreational boats are supposed to be more than 60 metres away, but wildlife and tour boats have a special permit to get closer,” she said.
“Jet skis are meant to be 260 metres, but they get very close as they’re small crafts and very manoeuvrable.
“Seals can habituate really rapidly to vessels visiting regularly, and tourism fits that category.
“But when there are lots of different things happening and vessels coming and going, we just don’t know whether they cope with it or if it causes stress.”
Ms McIntosh said the study is in partnership with the University of Sydney.
“We captured 100 pups over the three days and sampled their fur and blood and measured and weighed them to see how fat and healthy they are,” she said.
“We gave them a bleach mark on their bum, so each pup we collect has a unique identifier, which will only last for a few months, but it’ll help us follow their survival and health.”
To estimate the pup population, Ms McIntosh said they would conduct their Seal Spotter Challenge later this year after using drones to survey the seals.
“We take several flights over the breeding season and load them onto Seal Spotter and people count them from all over the world,” she said.
“That’s how we get our pup numbers.”
Ms McIntosh said the team also detected a healthy number of juveniles and adult females compared to previous years, but a number of juveniles were underweight.
“When females have their next pups, they try and wean their juveniles,” she said.
“There might be several thousand pups born but not all of them make it – that weaning process is really tough for them.
“If you see them around Phillip Island sprawling out on the beaches, the best thing we can do is give them space.
“The public isn’t allowed closer than 30 metres and dogs 50 metres.”
Unfortunately, Ms McIntosh said they also detected two juveniles that had become entangled in plastic and were unable to remove them at the time.
She added another PhD student is studying the causes of abortion among the fur seals, as the rate is higher compared to other species, and if there are any links to PFAS chemicals.
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