Saturday, April 13, 2024

DOC extends seal sighting project

A citizen science project encouraging the public to report sightings of kekeno/NZ fur seals around the upper North Island has been extended into summer, the Department of Conservation (DOC) announced today.

Between 1 July and 22 November last year, DOC conducted a public awareness campaign urging people to report sightings of kekeno around Coromandel and the Hauraki Gulf.

The citizen science project and call for sightings followed a high number of dead kekeno observed in the region during winter 2021.

By receiving more sightings of the seals reported by the public, DOC’s scientists would be able to learn more about the species and understand if the previous winter’s mortalities indicated a trend, the Department said in a statement.

New Zealand’s kekeno population is growing in size and range – and becoming increasingly visible to New Zealanders, it said.

Marine Science Advisor, Laura Boren says DOC received 102 reports of kekeno sightings between July and November.

The sightings were spread across the upper North Island, with 36 in Waikato (including Coromandel), 27 in Auckland, 14 in or around the Hauraki Gulf, and seven each in Northland and Bay of Plenty. Of those, 21 sightings were groups of multiple seals.

Of the sightings, 81 were for live animals and 21 were for dead animals. Ms Boren says this was a positive result as there were significantly fewer dead seals reported than over the previous winter and spring.

Images were provided by the public seal spotters for 65 of the sightings of both live and dead kekeno. Most were clear enough for assessment of age class and these helped DOC staff confirm sightings included kekeno of all age classes, from pup, juvenile, sub-adult to adult, similar to what was observed the previous year. The other sightings did not include images but still proved useful for the project, Ms Boren says.

“The decision to extend the project into summer will deliver more valuable data on one of our most visible and interesting marine mammal species,” she said.

“In summer, more people are out enjoying the coasts of New Zealand and the ocean around us, so that’s more eyes helping us identify seals and provide us with sightings.

“In addition, the extension into summer allows us to look for kekeno across a very important time in their life history as summer is breeding season.”

The project area has been expanded to cover areas north of Kawhia, on Waikato’s west coast, and Whakatane on the east coast.

Otago University Wildlife Management Masters student, Nicola Roos, is also contributing to the project, carrying out field work on DOC vessels.

“Key areas of interest include Auckland, the Hauraki Gulf, and the Coromandel Peninsula. We will be gathering sightings data of any fur seals spotted within our study area,” she says.

“This data will be mapped to create an estimate of their distribution and determine key sites where kekeno like to hang out.”

Ms Roos’ field work will also assess locations for potential release sites for rehabbed seals through DOCs relationship with Auckland Zoo.

Auckland Zoo has a permit to rehab and release fur seals, but at the moment doesn’t use it to its full potential as we need to identify release sites that would improve the chance of successful rehabs. The project work will help DOC to identify potential release sites and better plan for this activity.

Identifying breeding areas or locations where multiple sub-adult seals haul out reliably will enable DOC to identify potential release sites, said Ms Boren.

She said DOC welcomes reports of sightings of all seals – either live or dead – from around the upper North Island.

“Information and photos of all dead seals found means local DOC staff can assess whether the specimen meets the criteria for necropsy.”

“The key factor is freshness – the fresher the specimen, the greater chance of determining the cause of death.

“From those necropsies, we’ll be able to gather important information on the species, why some of the individuals have died, and what we can do going forward.

“For this reason, it’s important to report as quickly as possible,” said Ms Boren.

Regardless, all reports, images and information collected will help build understanding of the kekeno population, she said.

In reporting kekeno sightings, and providing photographs, people should take photos of the whole animal from several angles, including for deceased animals one looking straight down from above and with something for scale, and note the date, location, and if the animals is tagged before sending to

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