Once endangered due to overfishing, their numbers have bounced back in recent years.
Now, their increasing presence threatens to devastate a small fishing community.
But the fur seals, like all marine mammals, are protected, and some say culling simply would not solve the problem.
South of Adelaide, the Coorong is home to a vibrant fishing industry, the Ngarrindjeri Indigenous people, abundant wildlife and a community sustained by thousands of visitors a year.
They come from across the world.
But in the last ten years, the wetlands have also become home to something locals say poses a threat to all those groups: a flourishing population of long-nosed fur seals.
Local fisherman Glen Hill says the seals, also known as New Zealand fur seals, rip up his nets and maim the fish caught inside.
His wife, Tracy Hill, says the financial impact to their business, Coorong Wild Seafood, has been immense.
“We’re probably running at about half of our normal production on a good week. So it really has drained the finances, and we’ve had to prop it up a little bit out of some savings from time to time to keep the employees paid. Like Glen says, over the last eight years, we’ve noticed that the seal problem’s been getting worse and worse, but it’s really got bad in the last 12, 18 months.”
Glen Hill is among a growing number of frustrated locals who support calls to cull the seals.
“They have to go. So, the answer has to be yes. I’m happy to explore other options. I mean, if we want to go, ‘Let’s try and remove them,’ it’s been tried elsewhere, and it doesn’t work, but let’s do it again.”
Neville Jaensch is the mayor of Coorong Council.
He has seen firsthand the impact the seal population has had on the tiny community of Meningie and warns the situation will only get worse without swift action.
He worries a lack of action could put lives at risk in an area already under stress from the impact of recent, prolonged drought.
“The Meningie scenario, particulary with the fishermen, the stress level on their families is appalling, as it was with the farming families during the drought and the lack of water.”
Those concerns have grown in the wake of three suicides in the nearby community of Tailem Bend within a six-week period.
It is not just the fishing industry Neville Jaensch believes will be impacted if the long-nosed fur seals are not brought under control.
Fishermen say they have spotted the seals attacking and killing local birds, including swans and pelicans — the totems of the traditional owners, the Ngarrindjeri people.
And Mayor Jensch suggests there could be a follow-on effect on the community if the fishing industry continues to suffer.
“From the economic aspect, the fishing industry is going into shutdown. Coorong mullet will become a luxury of the past. Many fishermen are losing tens of thousands, if not a hundred-thousand dollars, a year. The tourism aspect, there is risk with tourism, because people will not be able to use the water as effectively as they have in the past.”
Liberal state MP Adrian Pederick is the Member for Hammond, which covers the Coorong.
He has tabled a petition to parliament with more than 1,500 signatures to have the seals sustainably harvested.
But the state government has backed a plan to trial a range of deterrents to scare the seals away from fishing boats.
Sound devices and underwater firecrackers are among the tactics being considered.
The Conservation Council of South Australia’s chief executive, Craig Wilkins, says he believes all other options should be explored before killing all or some of the seal population.
“There’s a range of things that we should be looking at. Not all of them will work. And that’s why we need to try them in the South Australian environment. It’s about getting good data to make wise decisions. And so, this investigation that’s currently going on is the right approach. Let’s try what we can. Not all of it will work, but, at least, let’s consider it first.”
Peter âªShaughnessy is an honourary research associate at the South Australian Museum.
Now semi-retired, he has spent most of his life observing and researching fur seals.
He says it will be very difficult to remove the fur seals from the Coorong by any method.
“The people who want to remove fur seals from the Coorong should go look at San Francisco and see all the California sea lions that are in the harbour. And they’ve been there for a long time, and people just can’t get rid of them. Also, Cape Town docks. There are lots of fur seals in the docks in Cape Town, lying on pontoons. The authorities can’t get rid of them. It’s very difficult to get rid of these animals.”
He says culling will not necessarily fix the problem.
“If they want to cull the fur seals to keep them out of the Coorong, they’re going to have to cull a very large number of them, because, if they just go and remove — shoot — the ones that are in the Coorong, others will swim back in.”
Nature-based tourism accounts for more than a billion dollars in expenditure in South Australia every year.
There are fears a cull could hurt tourism numbers.
Craig Wilkins, from the Conservation Council of South Australia, stresses again that, in his opinion, any move will require a lot of consideration first.
“Any culling program is pretty brutal. It would need to be large numbers, and it’s … it’s horrific. So, we have to really think carefully before we go down that path.”
Discussions over how to best deal with the seals are ongoing.
But fisherman Glen Hill says something must happen soon — before his business, and his livelihood, goes under.
“It’s more than a job. Farmers talk about it being a lifestyle. It’s more than that. You live it all the time. It’s your whole life. So, not having it? I can’t see it. I can’t … I can’t imagine it.”