The fur seal pup, less than a year old, was first sighted by a drone being flown for permitted Monash University and Phillip Island Nature Parks research at the Seal Rocks colony.
From the air it was clear that the white plastic netting was wrapped around the seal’s neck and was cutting deeply – and painfully - into the pup’s thick protective coat and skin.
“We had to wait for calmer seas to get out to the breeding site, but we have a terrific partnership with Wildlife Coast Cruises, who sighted the seal. We were lucky that the pup was resting ashore while we were onsite so that we could catch and release it,’’ said Phillip Island Nature Parks Marine Scientist Dr Rebecca McIntosh.
“It is not easy to catch entangled seals, especially at breeding sites. It is important to balance helping one seal, with the impact of disturbing the other seals onsite,’’ Dr McIntosh said. “Mums travel long distances at sea to feed themselves and then come back to feed their pups who have been fasting while they are away. We try to minimise affecting the natural pattern for the healthy seals.”
With the support of the Victorian Fisheries Authority, the team landed the boat at Seal Rocks, crept up behind the approximately 15kg pup and then captured it using a specially designed funnel net.
Adam Yaney-Keller, a PhD student with Monash University and Phillip Island Nature Parks, was on site studying the use of thermal imaging drones for detecting fur seal entanglements in plastic debris and exploring the impact of being entangled on individuals and populations.
“It was clear when we could see it up close that it must have been suffering. The mesh had created a noose around its neck and was cutting in deep,” said Mr Yaney-Keller, who captured the seal along with Ebony McIntosh who was assisting.
The mesh was carefully removed before releasing the pup.
“While the pup ran away quickly after we removed the mesh, we don't know if there are long-term effects from being entangled, even after being released. That's something I'm investigating in my PhD with Monash and Nature Parks,” Mr Yaney-Keller said.
On average, 21 seals per year are observed entangled at Seal Rocks in fishing line and other rubbish such as the garden mesh. But, there are likely as many as 60 entangled at any given time, according to research published by Dr McIntosh and colleagues in 2015. Normally about half of the seals observed entangled are able to be released.
“Given how difficult it is to catch them, this is a fantastic effort by the team,” Dr McIntosh said. So far this year, researchers have rescued 12 seals.
"This garden mesh material, thought to be used for climbing plants in the garden, can cause horrible entanglements. Curious young pups like this one can easily get their heads and flippers stuck in the holes in the netting, and the large knots dig deep into the skin preventing them from getting out," Mr Yaney-Keller said.
“We are asking the community to be careful when using netting in the garden. The larger the mesh size, the more likely it is to entangle wildlife.’’
Up to five Australian fur seal pups and juveniles have been entangled in this material recently. This is the first time this white mesh has been seen entangling seals since monitoring and release began by the Nature Parks in 1997.
“We expect that this netting blew or washed into the ocean. Please ensure that such materials are used carefully and that they are disposed of in a covered bin once they reach the end of use,” Dr McIntosh said.
Seal Rocks off Phillip Island is home to more than 25,000 fur seals – one of the largest breeding sites in Australia.