Behavioral responses of Australian fur seals to boat approaches at a breeding colony
journal contributionposted on 2018-12-18, 00:00 authored by Julia Back, A J Hoskins, R Kirkwood, John ArnouldJohn Arnould
Copyright Julia J. Back et al. In Australia, a multi-million-dollar industry is based on viewing the Australian fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus), predominantly through boat visits to breeding colonies. Regulation of boat approaches varies by site and no systematic investigations have been performed to inform management guidelines. To investigate possible effects of disturbance, experimental boat approaches were made to a colony at Kanowna Island in northern Bass Strait and seal responses were monitored using instantaneous scan sampling. Colony attendance (individuals remaining ashore) was found to be influenced by approach distance and time of day, but was not affected by environmental variables or season, whereas onshore resting behavior was influenced by approach distance, time of day, ambient temperature and wind direction. Onshore resting behavior decreased following experimental boat approaches to 75 m, but changes in abundance of individuals ashore were not observed at this distance. In contrast, approaches to 25 m elicited a strong response, with a steep decline in the number of individuals ashore. This response was strongest when approaches occurred in the morning, with a decline of approximately 47% of individuals, compared to a decline of 21% during afternoon approaches. With regard to onshore resting behavior, afternoon approaches to 75 m led to minimal response. The remaining three combinations of approach distance and time of day had a similar pattern of reductions in the proportion of individuals engaging in onshore resting behavior. The strongest response was again seen during approaches to 25 m conducted in the morning. These behavior changes suggest that unrestricted boat-based ecotourism at Australian fur seal colonies has the potential to increase energy expenditure and reduce the number of seals ashore. Increasing minimum approach distances to ≥75 m and/or restricting visits to afternoons may minimize these impacts at Kanowna Island during the post-molt and non-breeding seasons. As several studies have demonstrated considerable intra-species variation in seal responses to boat approaches, research at other colonies is needed before these findings can be generalized to the remainder of the Australian fur seal population.