By LOUISE THOMASON
Environmentalists in Shetland are pressing for more research to be done in to the recent decrease in common seals around Shetland following the release of a new study from the Scottish Government into Scotland’s seal population.
According to the report, the overall seal population is now larger than at the time of previous estimates, with around 164,000 grey seals, which is 90 per cent of the UK’s population.
However, the number of common seals is in decline. Overall there are is a minimum of 20,000 common seals, a figure significantly lower than the number of grey seals.
The decline is localised and occurs predominantly in Shetland, Orkney and the Firth of Tay but is also spreading to Strathclyde.
The most recent surveys suggest that since 2000, the common seal population in Shetland has fallen by around 40 per cent.
While there is no specific factor behind the decline, the report suggests that in the waters around Shetland the predation of killer whales is a factor which “could be significant”.
A recent study into killer whale feeding and behavioural habits, led by Andy Foote of the University of Aberdeen, found that there is was a direct correlation between the common seal pupping season and periods of killer whale sightings in Shetland. The study used 10 years’ worth of sightings data.
However while they agree there is a definite decline, local environmentalists say there is no real evidence that killer whales are to blame for the recent seal shortage.
Jan Bevington, of the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary, said she doesn’t get a lot of common seals and the majority are pups. “The pups are in a very poor condition and have been for the last 10-12 years. They’re coming in quite malnourished and we’ve been very worried.
“[Killer whales] are natural predators but I don’t think it’s that, they’ve been feeding on seals for years and years. There are all sorts of fingers to point, but you can’t pinpoint one reason as it’s difficult to get proof.”
Mrs Bevington said that paying more attention to sea pollution may help however. She said: “I think cleaning up the seas would help, and more legislation put through to make sure this happens.”
Environment and rural affairs minister Richard Lochhead said: “This important report provides a valuable insight into the behaviours of one of our most fascinating marine mammals.
“I’m confident it will also help ensure that a better balance is struck between seal conservation and sustainable fisheries and aquaculture in our forthcoming Marine Bill.
“Our seas are among the most biologically productive in the world. While it’s unlikely that any single cause is responsible for the decline in common seals, it would seem that competition for food supplies with the larger, more numerous grey seal could be a significant factor.
“We have already taken decisive action to provide additional protection for common seals and introduced additional monitoring and research to look at probable causes.
“We also know there are concerns about several aspects of current seals legislation, which is almost 40 years old. So we are currently considering options for new measures in the Marine Bill, they will also provide flexibility to accommodate such wide variations in the status of Scotland’s two native seal populations.
“Our proposals will significantly increase protection for seals but allow for limited seal management for fisheries and fish farms under licence.
“They recognise the need for increased protection in respect of declining common seal numbers but acknowledge the continuing need to defend fisheries and fish farms from seals.”