The effects of tourism on the behaviour of the New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri)
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
The demand by ecotourism for easily accessible wildlife encounters has increased the need for regulations to minimise negative effects of tourism on towards marine mammals. High levels of human interaction could have serious consequences for recovering populations of New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri). By monitoring behavioural shifts in reactions to human disturbance, the aim of this study was to determine how disturbance by tourism is affecting the behaviour of the New Zealand fur seals. Fur seal breeding colonies, haul-outs, and a pup nursery were studied on the South Island to determine the level of disturbance. Data collected in this study can be used towards improving monitoring regimes to mitigate negative effects of anthropogenic disturbance. I first used behavioural observations to assess a seal’s behaviour in response to different types of tourist activities. Next, I examined changes in New Zealand fur seal behaviour as a result of visits to colonies by tourist boats. To quantify the response of fur seals to tourist boats, experimental boat approaches were conducted using a before, during, and after instantaneous scan sampling method at two breeding colonies (one with high vessel traffic and one with none). Impact of noise was also investigated using a loud speaker to mimic local harbour tours. Lastly, behavioural observations on seal pups at a nursery were conducted comparing pup behaviour in the presence and absence of tourism along with variable intensities of tourist behaviour. My observations suggest that seal behaviour was significantly different between sites with and without tourist visits. The type of tourism had a significant effect on the behavioural state of seals, with animals more active when there were people walking in the colonies. There were also signs of habituation in some of the study colonies. Since each colony varied in the type of tourism it experienced, it is possible that it is not only the level of tourism that is important but also the type of tourism that has a significant role in eliciting short-term behavioural shifts. Observations from a tour boat revealed an increase in the percentage of seals reacting when vessels were close to the shore. This distance effect was overridden and reactions were greater, however, when tours included commentary via an external speaker. The effects of both distance and noises were significantly different between colonies with high and low levels of tourist visits. Due to the overlap of peak tourist visits with fur seal breeding season, these animals are at their most vulnerable when companies are in peak operation. Finally, as with adults, pup behaviour was also significantly affected by tourism presence. Periods of inactivity and awareness increased in the presence of tourists, which is indicative of disruption of “play” and movement towards more vigilant behaviour. Despite the significant effects of tourist visits I found in this study, there was large variation in the degree of responses in different populations of the fur seal. This variation is thought to be due, in part, by the level of desensitisation, especially at locations with high or continual tourism pressures. This study also provides evidence that fur seal pups subject to human disturbance will alter their behaviour, shifting from active (when people are not around) to inactive and more aware (with increased disturbance). The results presented suggest such visits are not without consequences and that animals can be disturbed by human interactions. Therefore, measures should be taken at all seal colonies used in tourism ventures to mitigate any negative long-term effect on the fur seal populations.