Further to the recent attacks on fur seals in Kaikoura, comes a timely study just published in Conservation Biology. Alejandro Acedevo-Gutierrez and Lisa Acedevo of Western Washington University, and Laura Boren, DoC’s national marine mammal coordinator, found that the presence of an official-looking volunteer stationed at a popular seal viewing areas was enough to deter tourists from harassing seals.
The researchers carried out their study at Ohau stream waterfall, Kaikoura, near the location of the recent attacks that saw 23 animals bludgeoned to death. Over a period of 9 months they recorded the behaviour of tourists in the presence or absence of a volunteer observer who was wearing a neon vest and made to look “official”. Tourists were deemed to be harassing the seals when they approached the animals to within a few metres or threw an object at them. They found that harassment dropped by two-thirds when the observer was present – from 38.4% down to 13% of groups with at least one person who harassed the seals - even if the observer said nothing to the tourists.
Viewing of fur seals is regulated by the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1992, but the researchers had previously found that simply having a sign up stating these regulations does nothing to ensure that tourists actually comply. Having an actual person wearing a neon vest is far more effective at preventing harassment, even if this person is a volunteer with no authority to actually enforce compliance with the regulations.
The researchers point out that using volunteers in this way is a cheap and effective way of managing tourist-wildlife interactions at popular wildlife viewing areas, and has the added bonus of observers being able to educate tourists about the animals. They found that approximately half the tourist groups approached the observer and asked questions about the behaviour of the seals, and all of them had misconceptions about how to behave around young seals.
Acedevo-Gutierrez et al. Effects of the Presence of Official-Looking Volunteers on Harassment of New Zealand Fur Seals. Conservation Biology. Article first published online: 3 DEC 2010 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01611.x