Visitors to the Belgian coast will have to get used to North Sea visitors they haven’t seen in a while – the dozens of seals that use the short, sandy coast as a resting place.
the reason? During the long period of coronavirus restrictions between early 2020 and early 2022, marine mammals have found stretches of sand calm, without the usual crowds of people.
Now that people are back, and ahead of what could be a bountiful summer season, the challenge for Belgian animal conservation groups is to educate the public on how to live with dozens of seals experiencing some downtime.
It’s hard to say the exact number of seals using the coast, but it’s likely between 100 and 200, according to Kelly Morrow, a marine biologist and spokesperson for the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.
The two species that roam here are the gray seal, whose adults can weigh up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds), and the common or shelter seal, a smaller mammal that can weigh up to 165 kilograms.
However, beaches are essential for the seal pups, which hang in relative safety on land until they are hungry enough that instinct prompts them to go to sea to find food.
For this reason, Moreau explained, it is essential that they not be fed by humans.
“In the beginning of life, the puppies have to spend a few days on the beach until they get hungry. If someone feeds them, they don’t go to sea and learn how to fish,” he said.
To keep beachgoers at bay, volunteers rope off areas used by seals.
At a place near Belgium’s main seaside town of Ostend, dozens of people stand behind a rope, enchanted by two seals on the sand.
Around these areas, North Seal volunteers wearing fluorescent orange vests tell people that dogs should be kept on a leash.
“We rotate throughout the day, from seven in the morning until ten or eleven at night,” group founder Inge de Bruecker told AFP.
Seals should be left alone because they get stressed very quickly.
“And when you get close to them, if they go swimming again they can drown. If they’re tired, they can drown.”
Keeping dogs away is important, she said, because “seals have bitten some dogs, and dogs have bitten some seals.”
“We don’t want that to happen to people, especially to children.”
The North Seal Team, set up shortly after COVID restrictions were introduced in Belgium, has worked with Ostend municipal authorities to establish rules of behavior around beached seals, particularly in giving the animals 30 meters (yards) of a safe distance.
For marine mammals, people returning to a coast they thought was deserted is an adjustment.
“The seals used to come to rest on the beaches and people are generally very happy when they see them. They want to pet them and take selfies with them,” said Moreau, who works at the Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.
Some people mistakenly thought the seals were beached by accident and tried to push them back into the sea. “But these are wild animals!” He said.
However, in some cases, seals need direct human care.
This is the role of the Sale Rehabilitation Center.
It is located in the Sea Life Blankenberge aquarium, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Ostend.
North Seal Team volunteers contact him through WhatsApp groups when they come across a seal that might need attention.
An increasing number of people walking on the beaches are also connected.
“They send us pictures of the animal and we decide whether or not we need to get involved,” said Steve Vermott, president of Sea Life Blanenberge.
“We’re actually doing more interventions because some seals are perfectly fine to actually survive in the wild and may have a minor wound, but we’re seeing seals with bigger injuries these days.”
Most treated animals are released after two months. But some, like a blind female named Lily, are taken indefinitely.
In the past year, the center has treated a dozen gray and three harbor seals.
It also paid attention to several seals with neck injuries, which may have been caused by some kind of fixed fishing net that is not easy for them to spot.
The Royal Institute of Natural Sciences says these types of nets caused the deaths of dozens of seals in 2021, prompting Belgium to ban recreational fishing.
Last year, 54 seal remains were counted on Belgian beaches, according to the institute, noting that this was half the number from 2021.
For Morrow, this is an indication that the new ban is working, and that humans and seals are able to find ways to coexist.
© 2023 AFP
the quote: Belgium Learns to Share Its Beaches with Sleeping Seals (2023, May 12) Retrieved May 12, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-05-belgium-beaches-sleepy.html
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