18 August 2011

Seal cull not neccesarily way to protect South Australia's penguins

AUSTRALIA - The South Australian Department of Environment has confirmed it has been lobbied for a New Zealand fur seal cull or relocation program as a possible way to halt the decline of the little penguin population on Kangaroo Island.

While the number of penguins in the Victor Harbor/Kangaroo Island region has plummeted, the seal population is now up to 30,000.

John Ayliffe, manager of Kangaroo Island Penguin Centre told The Advertiser that there were about 40 seals specialising on hunting penguins on or near the island.

"There are significant numbers of people who are speculating on [a cull] to maintain a balanced ecosystem," he said, adding that it was not for him to advocate culling as it was a political decision, but it was worth trying to relocate some seals.

The Government's response has been to wait for more research before making a decision. A spokesman for the Department of Environment said that no option could be ruled out until an expert report was obtained in September.

On a local level, the Kangaroo Island Natural Resources Management Board held an Overabundant Species Workshop in June in response the community's concerns. Experts at the workshop strongly advised the Board against any direct action towards New Zealand fur seals at this stage. Presiding Board Member Richard Trethewey told The Advertiser the Board wanted better research before identifying if a solution were needed but would not rule out any action, including a cull or relocation programme.

Meanwhile, penguin experts do not see a seal cull as a solution for the declining penguin population on nearby Granite Island, which is undergoing a census this month.

Researchers predict that this year's census will show a continuation of the devastating downward trend which has seen the island's penguin population drop from 1548 to 146 in the past decade, but say it has not been proven that fur seals are the cause of the decline.

Natalie Gilbert of Granite Island Nature Park told the Sunday Mail, "We need to investigate all possibilities. We shouldn't be making such important decisions [on culling seals] without being completely knowledgeable on the subject. We haven't been able to pinpoint the problem."

"Some colonies in South Australia have got seals close by - lots of them - and are doing fine. Others don't seem to have as many and seem to be suffering a lot more," she told ABC News.

Penguin ecologist Annelise Wiebkin told the Sunday Mail there was not not enough information to prove that culling the fur seals would work, and that the best way of dealing with the problem was managing things on the land.

"If land predators like cats, rats and dogs are an issue - which have been in other colonies in Australia - if we can address that and improve habitat, that might counteract things happening out at sea," she said.

To find out what is behind the Granite Island penguin population decline, researchers but have implemented measures such as motion sensors cameras to capture footage of predators in the penguin colonies, microchipping penguins for future identification, and a program encouraging people to bring in any dead penguins they discover for autopsy.

Vegetation on the island is also closely monitored to ensure it meets the penguins' needs and in July, students and volunteers installed 35 nesting boxes to encourage the birds to breed.

Read related posts:
Penguin houses installed to improve penguin numbers
NZ fur seal population boom could spell doom for Kangaroo Island's little penguins

Experts predict little penguin on brink of extinction by Kim Robertson, 16 August 2011, ABC News
Granite Island penguins are on the brink of being wiped out by Sarah Mennie, 13 August 2011, Sunday Mail
Calls to cull fur seals off Kangaroo Island by Miles Kemp, 8 August 2011, The Advertiser
Kangaroo Island Natural Resources Management Board Meeting Minutes, 27 June 2011

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