Harbour seal numbers around Scotland’s coast have increased over the last five years following years of decline, according to survey results published today by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
However, the latest counts continue to show a clear east – west divide in fortunes for the protected species.
Scotland-wide August seal surveys are carried out over an approximate five-year cycle on behalf of SNH by the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews. The latest report presents results of 2015 surveys carried out in Shetland, the Moray Firth, the Firth of Tay and on Scotland’s southern coasts, completing the current round-Scotland survey that started in 2011.
Scotland’s seas and coasts are internationally important for harbour seals. Our waters are home to 36% of the total European population and Scotland’s Marine Protected Areas network includes several Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) designated to help the species.
Between 2011 and 2015 a total of 25,399 harbour seals were counted on surveys around Scotland’s coast. This is significantly higher than the 20,430 counted in the previous round-Scotland survey, but still fewer than the total of 29,514 in the survey before that.
Over the last 15 years the SMRU surveys have shown a big drop in the numbers of harbour seals counted on the east of Scotland, particularly in Orkney and in the Firth of Tay & Eden Estuary. Although twice as many harbour seals (60) were counted in the Firth of Tay & Eden Estuary SAC in 2015 than the 29 counted in 2014, this is still less than 10% of the numbers which were generally counted in the 1990s and early 2000s.
In the Moray Firth survey area 705 harbour seals were counted in 2015, slightly up from 693 the year before. These are the two lowest counts for the area. In Shetland 3,369 harbour seals were counted in 2015, an increase of 11% from the 3,039 counted in 2009; however, this is the first increase in Shetland since 1993. No harbour seals were counted on the south-east coast, between the English border and Aberlady Bay.
It is a very different story for harbour seals on Scotland’s west coast where approximately 70% more seals were counted this time than in the previous Scotland-wide survey. Most recently, in the South-east Islay Skerries SAC, 1,087 harbour seals counted in 2015 represents a 63% increase over six years. Similarly, Southwest Scotland counts in 2015 are up 44% over eight years.
John Baxter, Principle Marine Adviser with SNH, said: “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 remain at historical lows. 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 and inform whatever management decisions are taken to help protect the harbour seals. This year (2016) we will be surveying Orkney, where numbers have been declining for a number of years, and the east coast of Scotland, as part of a three-year programme to cover the whole of the Scottish coastline.”
Harbour seals are a key attraction for many marine wildlife tourists who chose to visit Scotland and the species is included on a list of Priority Marine Features (PMFs), 81 habitats and species identified as priorities for conservation work in Scottish waters. The PMFs list, development of the Marine Protected Areas network and survey and monitoring work are all key projects in the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy which supports the Scottish Government’s objectives for clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse coasts and seas.