Researchers have arrived in Shetland to begin a year-long survey of harbour or common seals around the Scottish coastline in a bid to understand why populations have declined markedly in recent years.
As part of a project funded by the Scottish government, a team from the University of St Andrews’ Scottish Oceans Institute will examine the seals’ diet.
Despite conservation efforts, surveys have shown widespread declines of harbour seals around the UK, most precipitously around the Northern Isles. It is hoped that this study will help to understand the cause of the drop.
Researcher Lindsay Wilson, of the Sea Mammal Reserach Unit, will be in Shetland until next Tuesday to collect seal faeces samples which can then be analysed to determine what and how much seals eat. The sampling will allow the research team to identify species, regional and temporal differences in diet.
She said: “There have been dramatic declines in the number of harbour seals in Scotland over the last eight years, particularly in Orkney and Shetland.”
She said there were a number of possible reasons for the decline – including the prevalence of killer whales, a change in diet and competition from the more common grey seals – but no firm understanding of what is going on.
“The problem is that we do not know what they are eating. This study will result in the first Scotland-wide assessment of harbour seal diet and presents a valuable opportunity to assess diet competition between grey and harbour seals at the same time.”
The Scottish Oceans Institute opened at the University of St Andrews last year, bringing together over 300 staff to help to lead research of Scotland’s oceans, assess the effects of climate change, monitor marine life and advise the government.