Activist entangled in seal rights

Photographs of two of the stricken seals in Hout Bay harbour.

An animal rights activist is seething after his efforts to help Hout Bay harbour seals with necks ensnared in netting led to him getting tangled up himself… in red tape.

Ryno Engelbrecht, of the Cape Animal Rights Forum (CARF), heard of the mammals’ plight from an American tourist on Thursday June 28.

“She was a visitor doing a sailing course in Hout Bay and came across the seals. I was sent photographs of two seals, which had snares around their necks,” Mr Engelbrecht said, explaining that the material appeared to be what fishers used to cover their bait boxes.

“I immediately phoned the SPCA to ask if they could assist, but they did not have the necessary equipment.”

Mr Engelbrecht then emailed the City of Cape Town but was told he needed to approach the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) or Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) to assist.

Over the next few days, a team from CARF went out to do an inspection of the harbour and found that between four and five seals had been snared in this way.

“The problem is that despite being snared, the seals continue to swim around and eat well, resulting in the netting becoming tighter around their necks,” Mr Engelbrecht said.

His next port of call was the Two Oceans Aquarium. While it had the right gear and skills to help the seals, he was informed it only had a per-
mit to operate within Cape Town harbour, and not in the city’s smaller harbours.

Increasingly frustrated, he emailed the DEA, but was told the person he needed to speak to was in the Comoros and unavailable.

He did, however, manage to track down another DEA official who said he would approach the aquarium to assist. This official, he said, called him back to say aquarium workers had gone out to the site.

“You are sent from pillar to post by all these various departments. I am certainly not blaming the SPCA, which does not have the necessary equipment, and the aquarium also can’t be held accountable.

“What needs to happen is the aquarium needs to be given the necessary authority to assist stricken animals in the smaller harbours as well.

“In the meantime, these seals are suffering because none of the government departments want to help.”

Aquarium spokesperson, Renee Leeuwner said the facility had been assisting the SPCA and authorities for a number of years in various harbours and areas.

The aquarium was aware of the Hout Bay case and was working through the correct procedures and processes in order to be able to assist these seals.

“With the permission given to us by the City of Cape Town, Oceans and Coasts (DEA) and the SPCA, we will investigate, monitor and formulate a plan as to how best we can assist,” she said.

She said areas outside the V&A Waterfront were a bit more challenging in terms of assisting seals.

“We are reliant on others to notify ourselves or the involved authorities, and then to be able to get there and find the seal in the exact same area, or in an accessible area, is often a problem. However, we have had various successful disentanglements working with the SPCA in Hout Bay harbour.”

The aquarium is currently running a “Cut a Loop, Save a Life” environmental campaign, in which fishers are being educated about the impact of plastic, discarded fishing gear, box bands and rope on marine wildlife to reduce the incidents of entanglements.

City spokeswoman Sellecca Lang referred the Sentinel to the DAFF for comment as “they are responsible for harbours”.

She also recommended calling the SPCA.

DAFF spokesperson Carol Moses, in turn, said the protection and regulation of seals was the mandate of the DEA.

SPCA spokeswoman Belinda Abraham said the SPCA had responded to the call to help the seals but had been unable to do so as the mammals were no longer on land or within reach of its responders.

“We then contacted the City of Cape Town and we are currently in the process of planning a joint rescue effort,” she said.

The SPCA has two seal hooks and a seal net, but while these could help to catch seals on land, they could do more harm than good if they are already in the water.

“We rely on entities such as the DEA and DAFF, to assist us when we respond to direct complaints where we find we cannot operate independently,” Ms Abraham

The SPCA had successfully assisted many seals in similar circumstances at many Cape Town harbours, she said.

“These incidents occur when seals become entangled in fishing gut, bailing twine or other plastic pollutants. The word ‘snare’ is perhaps not appropriately used here – to the best of our knowledge, these are not purposely built snares with a trapping objective but rather incidental occurrences that take place as a result of pollution.”

Ms Abraham said calls about seals in distress could be made to the SPCA or the City of Cape Town, which would alert the respective authorities if need be.

Environmental Affairs spokesperson, Zolile Nqayi, did not respond to the Sentinel’s queries.