Plan for harbour seals at risk

Deon Barendse and Danny Abrahams with 3-year-old seal Chappie in the Hout Bay harbour.

A Hout Bay resident has mooted that people working with seals in Hout Bay harbour be brought in to assist the animals in cases where they become injured or entangled in netting.

This follows the Sentinel’s report on a number of harbour seals being discovered with netting around their necks last month (“Activist entangled in seal rights”, Sentinel, July 13).

Donovan van der Heyden has suggested people feeding and performing with the seals for tourists in the harbour already have a good relationship with the animals, and would be well placed to assist those that are injured.

“There has been some negativity around those working with the seals, but these men have years of experience that could be called upon. Not only could they be trained to assist the entangled animals, but their knowledge could be used for educational purposes.”

Feeding seals is illegal under the Seabirds and Seals Protection Act of 1973, but the men working with the animals in the harbour say they are being unfairly targeted by the authorities, and their value to tourism in Hout Bay should be considered.

Danny Abrahams, who has operated in the harbour for 37 years, says he is not a “seal feeder” but a “seal entertainer”.

“A lot of people come to Hout Bay just to see this,” he said as he demonstrated how a 3-year-old seal known as Chappie followed his every move.

“I love plants and these animals. Over the years, I’ve helped many seals that have become caught in nets. We also get a lot of school kids coming here, so we can educate them about the seals. We are in the best position to help.”

There are some 18 people working with the seals in the harbour, and they would dearly love the opportunity to set up a formal structure for their operations.

Another man, Deon Barendse, said they had regular run-ins with SAPS, law enforcement and Metro police officers.

Only last Friday, July 20, he was told that he would receive three months in jail or a R1 500 fine if he was caught feeding fish to the seals again.

Both men felt they were making a legitimate living on the harbour, making a memory for scores of tourists to Hout Bay annually.

“The seals love us. They are here waiting for us when we get to the harbour in the morning,” Mr Abrahams said.

Harbour master, Pumla Feni-Gela, referred queries to the Department of Environmental Affairs. The department had not responded at the time this edition went to print.

Belinda Abraham, the SPCA’s spokesperson, referred the Sentinel to the Two Oceans Aquarium, which has been monitoring the Hout Bay seals.

Aquarium spokesperson, Maryke Musson, said what the seal workers were doing was illegal, but she also understood that the animals provided a livelihood for them. “We go into Hout Bay harbour regularly, and we are very dependent on them to help us identify seals that have become entangled. They are really good at what they do,” she said.

“Unfortunately, we are not in a position to train them because what they’re doing is technically illegal. But they have allowed us to help the seals and we really appreciate that.” Because the seals often move around, it is sometimes difficult to locate them, and the seal workers assisted in this regard, she said. “It is all about the well-being of the animals at the end of the day.”