Harbour seals are the most abundant marine mammal species on the BC coast. The population of seals around Victoria currently numbers about 105,000! Our high seal density can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you talk to. Tourists love them: their rotund bodies, comically-huge eyes, and sweet teddy-bear faces make them adorable crowd favourites in our marinas and harbours, and out on whale-watching tours. Bigg’s killer whales (that’s the type of killer whale that eats marine mammals) also love harbour seals, because they’re a quick, easily-available snack packed with fatty calories – yum! On the other hand, seals aren’t quite as popular with animals that compete with harbour seals for food – like fishermen, for instance. There is also some evidence that the horde of seals are in direct competition with our endangered fish-eating resident killer whales.
One of the secrets to harbour seals’ success is their astonishing fecundity. A male harbour seal can impregnate several females each year, and females can have a pup every single year! Their gestation period is about nine months, and pupping takes place in June and July. If you think harbour seals are cute, you should see their pups! They are born at about half a meter (~2 feet) long, weighing about 16 kilograms (35 lbs.) and covered in fluffy, silky, silver fur. This time of year is a great time to see harbour seal pups around Victoria. Out at Race Rocks Ecological Preserve, which is a stop on many of our tours, we have already seen some pups! Mama harbour seals nurse their babies for four to six weeks. Then the pup is all on its own, and the females immediately breed again. That means if you’re a harbour seal female, you spend about 85% of your life pregnant! This reproductive efficiency makes harbour seals the ‘rabbits of the sea’.
Harbour seals have been in the news around Victoria lately, but not because of their adorable pups. Fisherman’s Wharf, a popular area of downtown Victoria, has long been a place where tourists and locals can interact up-close with harbour seals by feeding them fish from one of the local vendors. This year, the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority put a ban on feeding seals, in anticipation of new laws prohibiting the feeding of marine mammals in Canada.
While it not currently illegal to feed the seals, there are now signs and interpreters explaining the new rules and why they are important: while feeding the seals is a really fun experience, it can have unintended long-term effects on the health and safety of both seals and people. First, and most obviously, seals have big, sharp teeth. They are predators, and their instinct is to bite down hard on their prey. While there has never been an injury reported at Fisherman’s Wharf, the possibility always exists of somebody being bitten by a seal. In addition to the capability to remove fingers, harbour seals carry communicable diseases that can be transmitted to human and dogs. The introduction of unnatural food into the water around Fisherman’s Wharf is also attracting other scavengers that aren’t quite as loveable, such as gulls and river otters, who leave stinky and foul-looking droppings on nearby docks on boats.
The other problem is something called habituation. In the wild, seals are instinctually aware of anything that might be a threat. If you get too close to a seal colony in a boat, you will often see them jump off the rocks and into the water, where they feel safer. But seals are also quite clever, and are capable of learning from experience. If they get easy meals in the harbour, they will spend more time there. Now there are a handful of seals that hang out at Fisherman’s Wharf almost all the time. They get used to humans, and associate them with food. As was recently seen in Vancouver , habituated animals can be dangerous to humans because they have lost the instinct to be afraid of us. The ‘tame’ seals in Victoria harbour may seem friendly, but they are unpredictable wild animals, and no longer show any fear of people.
But the seals are getting easy food and can stay in a place with no predators, so they must be getting a good deal here, right? Well, not really. The seals that are ‘residents’ of the harbour lose not only their fear of people, but their overall fitness. This isn’t just a reference to their size (the fattened-up seals in the harbour outweigh their fellows in the wild by about half), but to their overall health. Those easy meals make the seals less active, which can impact their ability to avoid natural predators, find their own food, and find mates. Most people feed seals herring that they buy from the fish shop at Fisherman’s Wharf, but some people offer the seals other fare ranging from sashimi, to battered fish, and even chips! This unnatural food surely can’t be doing the seals any favours.
Of course, we’re only talking about a handful of seals out of a hundred thousand. Harbour seals are not endangered or threatened, and they are doing fine in the wild. A few seals getting fed will not make a great impact on their overall population. However, the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans believe that a ban on seal-feeding sets a good precedent for other interactions with marine wildlife. There are plenty of ways to interact with marine mammals in ways which are not detrimental to either party. Many people have lamented that they are unable to take photos of their kids feeding seals. While these memories can be fun, they also teach kids that wild animals are like trained pets, and interactions with them are best when on our terms. This is the same mentality that marine parks sold to their customers when they came to see trained killer whale shows.
Nowadays, society is beginning to understand that keeping killer whales in marine parks in order to get a cute photo and a few cheap laughs is not worth those animals’ health. In many ways, the same can be said for harbour seals. In my opinion, watching those moms with pups out at Race Rocks, nursing and making a living their natural environment, is much more meaningful and educational than making them come to us and do tricks for food. As for the seals that were getting fed: they are not dependent upon humans for their food. They were born in the wild and still have their own instincts. They might hang around the harbour for a little while, but if the free food stops coming, they will head back out to the wild. And I think we’ll all be much better off for it.
Kat Nikolich, M.Sc.