Harbour Seal population plummets smartphone to the rescue

Smartphone technology is being used to help solve the mysterious population decline of the Harbour Seal along the Scottish coast – an enigma that has baffled experts who are trying to stem their dwindling numbers. If well-targetted measures are not taken soon, they could eventually vanish from the Scottish coast altogether.

Several harbour seals have been fitted with tags containing Vodafone smartphone technology.

Smartphone technology to monitor harbour sealThe marine tags, which will help scientists monitor the Harbour Seals, are lightweight, small and completely harmless. When the animal moults they fall off. (Image: mediacentre.vodafone.co.uk)

Seals fitted with harmless marine tags

Marine scientists at the Sea Mammal Research Unit, part of St Andrews University in Scotland, will attach the next generation of marine telemetry tags at the back of the heads of the animals. The tags are small, lightweight and completely harmless.

When the seal moults, the marine tag, which works much in the say way as a smartphone, drops off.

The project will use Vodafone’s latest M2M (machine-to-machine) technology to send vital data – from the seals when they surface or beach – directly back to the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) for analysis.

M2M technology a standard feature

M2M technology has now become a standard feature in many devices, including heart monitors, smart meters, and even new cars. However, this is the first time it is being used to help monitor marine mammals.

Harbour SealAcccording to SMRU: “The majority of the UK’s Harbour Seal population is found along the rocky coastlines of the north and west of Scotland and the Northern and Western Isles. (Image: smru.st-andrews.ac.uk)

Over the 3-year period, SMRU researchers will receive data from the tags. The information they gather and analyze will help policymakers decide on the best measures to take to reverse the Harbour seal’s plunging population, which in some areas has declined by nearly 90%.

Vodafone says its M2M dedicated network will significantly improve data gathering on the seals’ dive behaviour, location, and oceanic environment. The system works across several different mobile technologies.

Marine scientists will be able to control directly the active state of every single SIM card in each marine tag using just one PC.

Scottish seals disappearing fast

SMRU has been commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Government, which are both concerned about the future survival of Harbour seals in several parts of Scotland.

In the North and East coast of Scotland, including Orkney, the Harbour seal population has dropped by up to 90% since the year 2000.

Harbour seal mother and pupThe Harbour Seal Decline Project says that the mother gives birth on shore in June or early July (in Scotland) to a single pup – twin births are extremely rare. Pups can swim as soon as they are born and are able to follow their mothers into the water. The mother produces a very fat-rich milk, which the pup lives on from three to five weeks, after which it is weaned. (Image: zooborns.com)

When the 3-year project is completed, Scottish Ministers will be in a much better position to decide what needs to be done. First, we need to find out why the population is falling so rapidly. Is the decline linked to offshore wind and wave turbines, a seal disease, interactions with salmon fisheries, etc.?

Principal marine adviser for Scottish Natural Heritage, Professor John Baxter, said:

“This exciting, collaborative study is vital to help us to better understand the drivers of population change in Scottish harbour seals, and to evaluate the potential conservation and management options open to us.”

Harbour Seal distribution ScotlandHarbour Seals populations have fallen around the east and north coast of Scotland and in the Northern Islands since around 2000. Numbers have declined by around 95% in the Tay estuary (East Coast), by approximately 75% in Orkney and by about 30% in Shetland, since 2000. Contrastingly, populations on the West Coast and in the Western Isles are either stable or increasing. (Image: synergy.st-andrews.ac.uk)

Dr. Bernie McConnell, SMRU’s Deputy Director, said:

“Over the last 15 years, many of the harbour seal populations in the Northern Isles and on the north and east coasts of Scotland have been declining. Marine data collected during this project on Orkney will help to assess the causes, management and mitigation options in relation to the harbour seals decline and to prioritise future research directions.”

Helen Lamprell, Vodafone UK’s Corporate and External Affairs Director, commented:

“The first mobile call was made on our network more than thirty years ago. We will now be the first company to help transmit valuable information from seals.”

Harbour seals on rocksThe Sea Mammal Research Unit says it “has been conducting surveys since the late 1980s to monitor the populations of harbour seals in Scotland. The aerial surveys occur in August during the annual moult, when the greatest and most consistent numbers of seals are found ashore. These counts provide with a minimum number of harbour seals in each area, which is an index of population size. (Image: smru.st-andrews.ac.uk)

“This project is proof that collaborations between government, science and the private sector can work to improve better informed policy decisions on the environment. We are delighted to be able to provide Bernie and his team with access to our technology and consultancy.”

Video – Harbour Seal

In this Visit Scotland video, you can sea how Harbour Seals really love to sunbathe. They are often observed lazing around on rocky coastlines.