BY HOOK OR BY CROOK
Illegal feeding of Happy the seal by desperate fishers a sign of hardship, hunger and depleted stock
Owing to depleted fish stocks and fishing quotas, Deon Barendse says he relies on Happy the seal to bring in tourist ‘donations’.
In Cape Town’s Hout Bay harbour, while Deon Barendse spoke to DM168, a seal named Happy waited for the fish the former fisher was cutting up with scissors.
Barendse uses the fish to pacify the seal, who then allows tourists to take pictures with him. The tourists give donations to Barendse.
“It’s almost 50/50 – I get him food, he makes sure my children get food. I don’t see a problem with him,” he says.
Feeding seals is illegal under the Threatened or Protected Marine Species Regulations, says Albi Modise, the chief director of communications in the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE).
The department neither permits nor encourages members of the public to feed, take photos or interact with seals. They are wild animals and interaction encourages them to become “unnaturally habituated to humans”, Modise says. “Feeding encourages seals to become reliant on humans for food instead of foraging for their own food.”
Becoming reliant on humans creates behavioural problems. “Seals have been known unpredictably to become aggressive towards humans and bite individuals,” he adds.
This interaction, which Modise describes as “artificial”, causes seals to stop foraging, overeat, become obese and frequent harbours where they are at risk of injury.
The seals in the harbour come from a colony on Duiker Island, just off the coast of Hout Bay. Seals are common along Cape Town’s coast – from Hout Bay to Kalk Bay – where tourists snap pictures of them basking in the sun.
According to the Two Oceans Aquarium, there are about two million Cape fur seals along the southern coastline, living in 24 to 40 colonies.
In 2020, complaints were raised on CapeTalk radio about the illegal feeding of seals. Callers said it was cruel towards the animals, with the seals often being hit by the feeders, or the feeders being rude to people who refused to donate.
At the time, the department’s Tots Dlulane, the national director of oceans and coast enforcement, said a possible remedy was to move the seals to the aquarium.
The aquarium told DM168 it has not housed seals since about 2006. Its seal teams worked at the V&A Waterfront, but would occasionally help seals elsewhere, including Hout Bay, where seals often become entangled in litter.
“The DFFE has considered various options to solve and regulate this issue,” says Modise. The removal of seals was found not to be viable for various reasons.
Modise says the department has increased its visibility at the harbour. In February, an illegal seal feeder was arrested.
Feeding and harassing seals is a criminal offence, which carries maximum penalties, including imprisonment up to five years, a fine of up to R5-million, or both.
Barendse started interacting with seals 14 years ago when the quantity of allocated fishing catches was dropped. “I decided I loved animals so I communicated with [the seals] and I treated them like [I treat] dogs at home.”
Barendse was caught by authorities three years ago and received six months’ in jail, suspended for three years.
“At the end of the day, there’s no work for us,” he says.
Other fishers tell similar stories: depleted fish stocks and fish quotas have left the fishing community, predominantly from the suburb of Hangberg, despondent.
A 2021 National Data and Information Report for Marine Spatial Planning states that 75% of all South Africa’s fishing takes place in the Western Cape. Nationally, the fishing industry employs 41,000 people directly and creates 81,000 jobs indirectly.
But this comes at a cost: species such as abalone, yellowfin tuna, West Coast rock lobster – species often caught by the Hout Bay fishers – were listed as “severely depleted”. The number of stocks considered overexploited increased from 12 in 2012 to 15 in 2016.
John Esau (62) says he has been a fisher for almost 50 years, mainly catching snoek. Now, fish are hard to find and he has to wander the harbour, joining crayfish catchers. “The little crayfish that I have, it’s nothing… I need to put food on the table.”
The department says it periodically conducts a Fishing Rights Allocation Process, which gives individuals and companies the opportunity to obtain commercial fishing rights.
Modise says the department is also rolling out a small-scale fishing sector, “which prioritises previously marginalised groups of fishers, people who depend on marine resources for their livelihood and those who have a history of fishing as defined by the Marine Living Resources Act”. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.