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Exclusive Interview with Francois Hugo, Founder, Seal Alert-SA

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13.7: The Namibian government says that the Cape fur seals are not endangered. Is this correct?

Hugo: The preferred habitat of Cape fur seals is offshore islands. Historically there were no mainland colonies. Sealing exterminated all these island colonies, 98% of which has remained permanently extinct. Twenty-three island colonies were exterminated due to sealing. So, from this point, Cape fur seals are virtually extinct. The government themselves stated in 1990 that the species was close to extinction.

The fleeing, surviving seals fled to the mainland and this is where sealing now takes place. So whilst there has been some recovery from almost zero, none of the former colonies have repopulated.

The Namibian government claims a rating by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that rates Cape fur seals as not endangered (lower risk). This has no legal status. Conversely, the South African government listed Cape fur seals with the United Nations Convention in Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in 1977 and the seals were given an Appendix II rating, which states trade must be carefully controlled to prevent its extinction. Namibia joined CITES in 1990. CITES is the only legally binding conservation rating, to which 173 countries have signed. The rating of the IUCN is meaningless, as it is based purely on one-sided, distorted data supplied by the Namibian government.

The other fact is that since 1994, this species has suffered several mass die-offs where all the pups starved to death and a third to half of the adults died as well. The last die-off admitted by the government was in 2006. In addition, I personally filmed Namibia's largest seal colony, which had just be subjected to the largest quota on record. It was completely collapsed -- there was not a single seal left.

So whether you look at habitat, legal obligation, conservation rating, the quota that exceeds the living pups or the mass die-off from starvation due to overfishing and collapsed fisheries off the coast of Namibia, the Cape fur seals are most certainly endangered. They have been effectively reduced as a population, relegated to a tiny area measuring 500m by 800m for the entire species.

13.7: The Namibian government also says that the seals need to be culled because they eat too many fish -- 900 tons worth, they claim -- negatively impacting the Namibian fishing industry. What are your thoughts on this?

Hugo: Hogwash and more hogwash. Namibia was once one of the most productive fisheries in the world, with seals and fish sharing a unique natural balance that had existed for 5 million years. In the late 1960s commercial fisheries caught 1.5 million tons. Almost all of it went to fishmeal for pet food and livestock feed, which is an unnatural protein diet for these animals. The government did not then consider to cull pets or livestock -- so why now seals? The 900-ton claim is itself false, as seal diet consists of 50% non-commercial fish. So at the most, the government should only be concerned with 450 tons of fish.
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It is the government or commercial fishing that should be culled, as the fish quota is now zero from mismanaged overfishing -- not seals. And pups do not eat solids or fish. So if this were true, why then does the cull involve a 90% pup quota and actually exempt all fish-eating seals of all age groups? The government has been culling seals even when it had no population data (the first population survey being conducted in 1972), nor any means of quantifying seal consumption. It just sounds like a good excuse, but it's not based on fact.

There is also not a single scientific paper supporting this. In fact, the only research by a leading professor funded by the government and the World Bank in 1994 on the hake/seal interaction showed that a seal cull would actually negatively effect the commercial catch of the hake. Seals feed on the predatory hake, which preys on the commercial hake.

In fact, South Africa believed the same, until it stopped in 1990, on the same species, and after 19 years, has in fact seen the seal population either remain stable or decline, as one would expect to occur in an overfished, collapsed environment. It has been conclusively proven that no intervention by mankind is needed to manage wild seal populations. Nature does so adequately through pups washing off islands and drowning, shark predation at sea and around colonies, jackal predation on land (although this is unnatural) and factors such as lack of fish, disease, heat and cold. These are all major -- and natural -- seal killers.

13.7: How many people are employed by Namibia's seal hunt and how will they be affected if the seal hunt is ended for good?

Hugo: Ninety-seven workers are employed part-time between July and December. The two sealing concession holders have other business interests as well. If the government continues with its annual cull, the seal population will collapse -- as evidenced by the fact that sealers only reached 25% of their quota last year. When it collapses completely, the unskilled seal workers will have no way to earn money.
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With the Seal Alert-SA buyout, as part of the offer, funds will be reinvested in Namibia in new industries whereby the sealers will be retrained and reemployed for at least the next ten years. Or, if the government accepts the Seal Alert-SA offer, I will retrain and redeploy the sealers as seal protectors and colony monitors year-round.

13.7: Why has Canada's seal hunt received more worldwide press than the hunt in Namibia?

Hugo: The answer is simple. Africans are poor by Western standards, and therefore appealing to most who earn $1 a day can hardly fund multimillion dollar anti-seal hunt campaigns. It's all about the money and very little to do with conservation, cruelty or protection of a species. It's animal politics.

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Reynard Loki is a staff writer for Sustainable Finance and Corporate Social Responsibility at 3BL Media/Justmeans. A former media executive with 15 years experience in the private and non-profit sectors, Reynard is the co-founder of MomenTech, a New (more...)

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