Mixed picture of harbour seal numbers around Scotland

There continues to be an east – west divide when it comes to the numbers of harbour seals around the coast of Scotland, according to a new report published on 11th November by Scottish Natural Heritage [SNH].

The results of survey work from 2014 show that numbers of harbour seals are at an all-time high on the west coast of Scotland since surveys started in the late 1980s – but have continued to decline in the east.

Over the past 15 years the surveys, carried out by the Sea Mammal Research Unit [SMRU] at the University of St Andrews, have documented a decline in numbers of harbour seals on the east and north coasts and the Northern Isles. In that time numbers have dropped by over 90% in the Firth of Tay and Eden Estuary and 75% around Orkney.

Last year only 29 seals were counted in the Firth of Tay and Eden Estuary Special Area of Conservation [SAC], set up to protect habitats and wildlife including harbour seal, compared with 88 counted in 2012 and 773 in 1992. Drops in numbers were also recorded in other protected wildlife sites along the east coast including in the Moray Firth and Dornoch Firth. In contrast, numbers have gone up by 60% or more in some parts of the west coast over the last six years, with some of the highest area counts recorded to date.

Harbour seals – also known as common seals – are found in cold and temperate waters throughout much of the northern hemisphere. Scotland is home to 36% of the European population. Ongoing research by Marine Scotland is investigating the local declines on the east coast and in the northern isles. Some factors, such as viral infection, persistent organic pollutants and interactions with fisheries have been ruled out. Current thinking is that they are most likely due to competition with the larger and more numerous grey seals in these areas. Exposure to toxins from harmful algae is also being considered.

John Baxter, Principle Marine Adviser with Scottish Natural Heritage says: ‘It’s great to hear that harbour seal numbers on the west coast are doing so well but it’s of real concern that numbers on the east coast continue to drop so dramatically. It’s still not clear what’s causing the decline but we’re continuing to work with colleagues at Marine Scotland and SMRU to try to get a better understanding of what is going on. These surveys are important to help monitor seal numbers so we can work together to take action if necessary – this year we have funded further surveys of Shetland and the south-west and south-east coasts.’

Ailsa Hall, Director of the Sea Mammal Research Unit says: ‘Without support from SNH we would not know how the abundance and distribution of this protected species is changing over time. Understanding the population dynamics of this key top predator in Scottish waters, and how these dynamics differ regionally, is clearly critical in our efforts to identify the drivers of the decline.’

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Related Articles & Comments

  • I’m surprised the numbers of common seals have increased in the west. Around here they have been decimated. Rocks and skerries in the loch and surrounding waters used to be covered in common seals. Now, one is lucky to see any in these places.

    The local population has declined as the fish farms have proliferated and increased in size.

    It must just be coincidental. Fish farmers wouldn’t shoot the seals, would they? They’re a protected species. Oh! Wait a minute, Harbour (common) seals are not protected and can be shot even during the breeding season.

    But the fish farmers wouldn’t do that, would they?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4

    Once-ler November 12, 2015 11:58 am Reply
  • Oh dear, another ill informed anti fish farmer who is scared to post under their real name.

    Just because you don’t see seals does not mean they have declined in number, if you actually read the article the numbers have increased by a significant amount.
    Perhaps you need glasses??

    Twenty years ago the manager of a fish farm would shoot any seal that killed fish and the numbers were stable.
    Now days they have to hire professional shooters, and only after all other methods are tried.
    Seals are hardly an endangered species and in some cases just a pest.
    I would rather get rid of a couple of seals a year than risk the jobs the fish farmers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4

    Steve Barlow November 12, 2015 12:52 pm Reply
  • Killing an innocent being V jobs. Now there’s a thought.

    “A couple”? – You must be kidding me on.

    Where’s Mark Carter when we need him? He’s the guy with the facts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

    Lowry November 12, 2015 1:10 pm Reply
  • Perhaps being in the employ of fish farmers colours your perspective somewhat Mr Barlow?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

    Viceroy Fluffy November 12, 2015 5:54 pm Reply
  • Yes, where’s Mark Carter when we need a good laugh? He has argued for years, very eloquently and clearly very effectively given the blinkered biased responses from the antis above, that fish farming has been responsible for a catastrophic decline in common seal numbers on the West coast of Scotland, but not the East coast ‘cos there aren’t any nasty fish farmers there.

    But these facts seem to suggest otherwise.

    Mark and your acolytes, to steal someone else’s line, when the facts change I normally change my mind, what do you do?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    Mel Gibson November 14, 2015 9:55 am Reply
  • Publicising the Latest Seal Report:

    More Spin than a Spinning Dolphin!

    Survey of Harbour Seals and Grey Seals (Restricted area, limited to) West Coast of Scotland, Moray Firth and the Firth of Tay 2014.

    Spin on this report would have you believe that the Common Seal situation in Scotland is rosy….read on and between the lines of the report!

    The Report documents over 15 years a continuing decline of 75% in Orkney and nearly 94% in the Firth of Tay and the Eden Estuary.

    The west of Scotland area has long been a contentious issues for environmental groups as the region is split into North and South but despite requests has never been split inner and outer (not including the Western Isles) where there have been massive declines, part of which have been subject to EC Complaints, with one still current.

    On top of the regions arguably being manipulated for government /industry propaganda purposes the survey has been dogged by bad weather and as a result only includes part of the Scottish coastal sea area. Another issue is ‘like for like’; there are differences between point source data and an average taken over many years: for example the total Scottish Harbour Seals population as printed on page five of the report. During 1996-97 there were 29,514 seals counted, the next two figures take an average over six and seven years, giving figures just 68 seals different over a fourteen year time span; some may read skulduggery into the overall counts of 23,423 between 2000-2006) and 23,355 between 2007-2014).

    It is also important to take into account that figures before 1984 are not equivalent to modern reporting techniques and historically we have no data…no base line on which to base any meaningful conclusions. What is widely agreed in scientific circles is that point source counts are limited in use and it is the ‘trend’ data that is useful. The trend graphs make for interesting viewing…mainly down! The report also states that it is not clear if some ‘changes’ are due to population change or a redistribution of seals; a vital missing part of the evidence in any report I would suggest.

    Taking the data as given in the report selected regions in the west indicate over the last six years; the Western Isles show a decrease with the exception of one high in 2011. I feel that it is important to view the data for the Special Areas of Conservation for Common Seals, this is where some real protection should be afforded; the Moray Firth Seal Management area is down by 25%. in fact EIGHT of the nine SACs indicate declines and the last showing a slight increase.

    More worryingly are the catastrophic declines in Sanday 94% and Firth of Tay & Eden Estuary 95% drop (page4). If that is not bad enough the situation regarding the conduct of the Scottish Government/Scottish Agencies during the first seal complaint to the European Commission under the Habitats Directive: Closed on a lie, that the salmon farm was not in the SAC. Check out Google Earth and see for yourself, one fuel and generator barge are just 20meters from the protected haul-out.

    Still SNH, Marine Scotland and the Scottish Government refuse to change the salmon farm operations in a protected SAC for seals. Worse when you read through minutes of the ‘Management’ Group minutes and see what publicly paid employees suggest in order to ‘hide’ the truth.

    Another highly disturbing event is the unevenly weighted representation on various ‘management’ groups; lets not forget that here, ‘management’ means KILLING SEALS. Even the latest round of figures and data release is only in the public domain due to hard work by relentless environmentalists, with the support of the Information Commissioner.

    To conclude if you want to take anything meaningful from this report look at page 18, the Trend Graph between 1996-2014 for the Seal Management Areas; just one the West of Scotland showing any increase and remember split that into ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ and the story is very different; with the exception of one small area the Scottish Common Seal population is not looking healthy despite two six and seven year average reports being submitted to the contrary; differences could be due to displacement and not population changes!.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5

    Mark Carter November 14, 2015 9:10 pm Reply
  • No straw left unclutched, no barrel bottom left unscraped.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    Mel Gibson November 17, 2015 11:26 am Reply

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