Over the past couple of years, the sighting of seals in the Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park appears to be on the increase. There are two types of fur seals found in New South Wales waters, the Australian fur seal and the New Zealand fur seal which are members of the family Otariidae (Fur seals and sea lions). It is very difficult to tell the difference between the Australian fur seal and the New Zealand fur seal. The New Zealand fur seal is slightly smaller than the Australian fur seal and are best distinguished from this species by their much darker colouration. For a more positive identification, a suite of other morphological and behavioural characteristics needs to be considered (such as head shape, whiskers, posture and vocalisations).
During the 2009 winter, three seals were regularly seen basking on the rocks on the western side of Cabbage Tree Island. It is believed that these seals were most likely Australian fur seals which are the largest of all the fur seals, weighing around 200 - 300kg. The females are smaller than the males and mature males carry a dark mane of coarse hair. Fishers have also reported seeing fur seals all the way out to the continental shelf off Port Stephens and around locations such as Broughton Island and Seal Rocks.
There are specific approach distances for seals in NSW that must be adhered too. Do not approach any closer than 10 metres when a seal is the water, no closer than 40m when a seal is hauled out on land and no closer than 80 metres when approaching a pup.
During the 1800s, the Australian Fur Seal was heavily hunted for its coat and the population dropped from several hundred thousand to only 20,000. Seals used to be very common in the area, hence ‘Seal Rocks’ but have been notably absent for many years. Current risks to fur seals include entanglement in discarded fishing gear and being caught in fishing nets. In Australia, all marine mammals are protected and the Australian Fur Seal population is making a recovery so please be extra careful around fur seals as they seek to re-establish a seasonal home in the PGSLMP as we want them to feel welcome.
David Harasti is the Research Scientist with the Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park