Investigating monitoring options for harbour seals in Special Areas of Conservation in Scotland
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Managing a wild population effectively requires knowledge of the abundance and behaviour of the species. Harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) are usually counted when they come ashore at haul-out sites, and so it is important to understand how the number of seals counted at this time relates to total population size. Satellite telemetry studies confirmed that harbour seals on the west coast of Scotland showed a degree of site fidelity and coastal foraging. Most trips taken by tagged animals involved travelling only 10-30 km from haul-outs and lasted less than a day (mean 21.07 hours, SE = 0.54), although some seals travelled over 100 km. Eighteen percent of the time these tagged seals spent hauled out was in the Special Area of Conservation where they were caught. Individual seals can be recognised from their unique pelage patterns using computer-assisted photo-identification. Capture histories for adult harbour seals at a site in north-west Scotland indicated that the number of seals using the study area between April and October was 3.4 times higher than the number counted during an aerial survey made during the August moult. In the UK, aerial surveys of harbour seals are usually conducted during the first three weeks of August, when seals are moulting. These counts have a coefficient of variation of around 15%. Land-based counts made at study sites on the north-west coast of Scotland indicated that the number of seals hauled out was most consistent during the moult, but highest counts were from the pupping period. Analysis of moult counts indicated that starting surveys one week earlier (on 7th August) and surveying 1½ hours earlier in the tidal cycle would reduce the count variation. There was spatial, seasonal, diurnal and sex-related variation in the proportion of time harbour seals hauled out. Thus the relationship between counts and total population size is likely to vary spatially and temporally. This variation should be included in the estimates of the CV of correction factors. A 5% annual change in harbour seal population size was predicted to take around 14 years to detect based on annual surveys and a CV = 0.15. This detection period increases when monitoring methods with lower precision are used, or surveys are made less frequently. Trends in seal abundance at pairs of haul-out sites were not synchronous and so it is unlikely that counts from small land-based protected areas, such as Special Areas of Conservation, can be used to monitor overall population status.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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