Alarming rise in New Zealand fur seal deaths linked to starvation and changing ecosystems
Scientists initially suspected that the fur seals might have contracted an infectious disease, like bird flu, mirroring the plague that killed hundreds of sea elephants and fur seals in Antarctica last year. However, after carrying out autopsies on the deceased animals, veterinarians and pathologists drew another conclusion. The primary cause of their death is starvation.
Seals succumbing to starvation
"Seals are not fussy eaters," says Jody Weir, a marine science expert. "But when the mothers lack energy, their young begin to die. One recent report showed that New Zealand fur seals consume 46 species of fish and 18 species of cephalopods. The fact that they're starving despite such a diverse diet is extremely concerning."
This situation implies that adult females are enduring nutritional stress. They not only need to acquire enough food and energy to sustain themselves but also to produce milk for their growing offspring. Additionally, they are typically pregnant simultaneously, further increasing their energy requirements.
A different report, which analyzed the seals' droppings, revealed that around 10 percent of their diet comprises fish species like New Zealand smelt. The changing population and behavior of these fish, in response to the warming of sea waters, is noteworthy.
Beginning of an ecosystem collapse
Sabrina Luecht, a wildlife rehabilitator from Kaikoura, has observed an increase in starvation across the food chain in recent years. She has also noticed growing numbers of ailing seabirds washing up on the shore. Luecht believes there's a link between the deaths of the seabirds and the seals.
"In essence, we're witnessing the onset of an ecosystem collapse. It's incredibly alarming. While it's a challenge to raise awareness without causing despair, I believe it's crucial to advocate for political changes in New Zealand. We also need regional actions such as expanding marine reserves, at the very least in the short term," Luecht stressed.