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North Sea seals recover from 2002 flu - except in UK

By Adriana Stuijt     Dec 6, 2008 in Environment
DOKKUM, The Netherlands - Are North Sea seals fleeing to the safety of Northern European sand banks to escape the huge pods of killer whales hunting their pups along the Scottish and Orkney coastlines?
There has been a massive 70% increase of the common seal population on the protected sandy shoals north of The Netherlands, Denmark and northern Germany this year -- and also a rapid drop in the seal population in the UK.
European researchers announced this week that the common seal population along the North Sea coastline have 'fully recovered from the 2002 flu epidemic which killed off half the population'. The 2008 moulting season counts on the Common Wadden Sea by the Trilateral Seal Expert Group show that there now are some 20.250 seals living on its sand banks -- a clearly thriving population of 5,972 common seals with 976 pups were counted on the Dutch sandbanks alone.
The conclusion of European seal-counters is that the North Sea's international seal population now has recovered fully from the devastating flu epidemic of 2002. About half of the common seal (also known as the harbour seal) population died in 2002 - mostly adult males.
But isn't something else also going on? Why are UK biologists so worried about the rapid drop in seal numbers on the other side of the North Sea while their relatives in Europe are thriving again?
UK marine biologists are startled by the 'steep and frightening' fall in the numbers of common seals around its coastline. Seal numbers in Orkney and Shetland in 2001 stood at 12,635 animals - but were only only 7,277 by 2006. The 2007 count showed 3,379 seals in Orkney.
And their numbers are dropping all around the UK coastline - except on the giant sand banks of The Wash -- the square-mouthed estuary on the east coast of England, where Norfolk meets Lincolnshire.
There, the common seal numbers rose from 1,695 in 2006 to 2,162 last year.
The total numbers of seals across the UK fell by 12% last year at the 13 sites where counts were made over two years - down by 3,120 animals to 23,277, reports the Guardian. Ian Boyd, a professor with the sea mammals research unit at St Andrew's University in Edinburgh, said 'it was as if the entire population had stopped breeding'. The scientists in the UK simply cannot explain it, they said. "We just don't know,' said Boyd. "Our collective view is that there's some large-scale process going on in the northern North Sea which is driving down seal numbers. We are seeing a massive decline.
"it's quite a frightening decline because these populations don't change as quickly as that under normal circumstances. The rates of decline are equivalent to these populations producing no offspring for five or six years...' he said.
Some studies suggested that pods of up to 150 killer whales observed hunting around Orkney and Shetland were killing seals at pupping time. People also could be illegally shooting the seals in fish-farming areas and at inshore fishing grounds. However, Boyd pointed out, 'these problems were localised and could not explain the UK-wide declines. ' Boyd also noted the rapid growth in the nearest common seal population on the continent, in the Wadden Common Sea, north of the Dutch, German and Danish coasts.
"We ought to be worried because these animals are at the top of the marine food chain and are in a sense bellwethers of what's going on in the marine environment," he said.
"Quite apart from the fact that they're charismatic species, they're indicators of the level of robustness that there is within the marine environment, and if we're seeing populations declining rapidly like this, it's got to ring alarm bells."
More about Common harbour seal, Recovers flu epidemic, North sea
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