Harbour Seal Decline - vital rates and drivers: Report to Scottish Government MMSS/002/15

Monica Arso Civil, Sophie Caroline Smout, Callan David Duck, Christopher Morris, Joseph Onoufriou, David Thompson, Andrew Brownlow, Nicholas Davison, Caroline Cummings, Patrick Pomeroy, Bernie J McConnell, Ailsa Jane Hall

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


Numbers of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) have dramatically declined in several regions of the north and east of Scotland, while numbers have remained stable or have increased in regions on the west coast. For any management and mitigation plans to address this situation, the relative contribution of various factors in the decline of harbour seals in Scotland needs to be identified, understood and assessed. Potential drivers of the decline include changes in prey quality and/or availability, increasing grey seal population size which may be influencing harbour seal populations through direct predation or competition for prey resources, and the occurrence and exposure of seals to toxins from harmful algae.
Previous work by Matthiopoulos et al. (2014) and Caillat and Smout (2015) developed and fitted an age-structured population model to data from the well-studied subpopulation of harbour seals in Loch Fleet (Moray Firth), to evaluate the contributions of different potential proximate causes to the observed decline. After reviewing the existing software, this model has been re-coded directly into R, a framework that will allow for future development and maintenance, and has been designed to be adapted to different model structures and future data sets. Preliminary results are consistent with those obtained from the original OpenBUGS modelling. Future work will have as its key objective the identification of the important drivers of population change in harbour seals, from those being studied as listed above. Temporal and spatial variation in these drivers will be incorporated into the population model.
Harbour seal haulout sites located in different regions of Scotland were visited in the spring and the summer of 2015 to collect information on their suitability for long-term monitoring of harbour seal populations, including their suitability for live captures, scat sampling, aerial and ground survey counts during pupping and moulting and photo-identification. This will allow empirical data to be collected and vital rates (fecundity and survival) to be estimated, for inclusion in the population model.
A haulout site located in West Burray (Orkney) has been selected to represent a region of decline, and a haulout site by Peninver (East Kintyre) has been selected to represent a region of stability or increase. In addition, photo-identification data will also be collected in Dunvegan Loch (Isle of Skye). The regional scope of local populations at each study site (Orkney, Kintyre and Isle of Skye) has been defined to direct future collation of any relevant environmental and biological data. Existing aerial survey counts of harbour and grey seals at each of the defined areas have been collated for use in the age-structured population model.
As part of the live captures programme, female harbour seals will be fitted in 2016 with low-cost electronic location tags, developed to allow a larger number of captured seals to be tagged and designed to regularly relay GPS locations from terrestrial locations. Data from these tags and from ten SMRU GPS/GSM phone tags will inform and direct the extent of the photo-identification re-sighting effort at haulout sites in 2016.
Domoic acid (DA) concentrations have been measured in urine and faecal samples collected from harbour seals in 2015, as a continuation of the work carried out by Jensen et al. (2015). DA is still being found in harbour seals around the Scottish coast and whilst concentrations vary between the different matrices (blood, faeces and urine) and samples, due to variation in exposure and time from uptake to excretion, some individuals appear to be consuming relatively high levels of toxin. Data from the monitoring of biotoxins in shellfish by the Centre for Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) by the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) were available for all of 2015 and January 2016. These datasets provide some indication of the occurrence of HABs and toxin-producing blooms in the regions of interest.
To further improve understanding of potential drivers of population change, initial contacts have been made to investigate the availability of prey samples relevant to seals foraging from the study sites, as well as the availability of prey abundance data from long-term fish surveys in the different regions of interest.
An update is provided on the current state of knowledge of the causes of spiral lacerations in seals based on necropsy results of stranded individuals since November 2014. Occurrences around Scotland are summarised along with objective assessments of the cause of the wound patterns, based on a weighted scoring system.
Original languageEnglish
Commissioning bodyScottish Government
Number of pages63
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2016


  • Harbour seal
  • Population Dynamics
  • Population decline
  • Bayesian approach
  • Photo-identification
  • Telemetry


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