Orkney seals to receive marine ‘smartphones’ in new trial

The harbour seal population is in sharp decline. Picture: Contributed.
The harbour seal population is in sharp decline. Picture: Contributed.
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ORKNEY’S harbour seals are to receive marine “smartphones” allowing scientists to track their every move, the first such initiative worldwide.

The harbour seal population is in sharp decline and the move will give researchers from the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews data about the effect of marine policies on the seals.

These include the impact of marine renewables such as offshore and wave turbines, unexplained seal deaths and interactions with salmon fisheries.

Under the three-year Scottish Government-backed project starting next month, UK telecommunications giant Vodafone will provide the “next generation” of small lightweight marine tags which scientists will attach to fur at the back of the seals’ heads.

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The tags will eventually drop off when the seal moults.

The tags, which work much in the same way as smartphones, will use the company’s latest machine-to-machine (M2M) technology to send information from the seal when it surfaces or beaches directly back to SMRU for analysis.

M2M technology is now a standard feature in new cars, heart monitors and smart meters, but has never been used before to monitor the well-being of marine mammals.

The SMRU study is being conducted at the request of the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage, who are concerned for the future survival of harbour seals which have declined in numbers by up to 90 per cent in some areas in and around Scotland’s north and east coast, including Orkney, since 2000.

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Professor John Baxter, principal marine adviser at Scottish Natural Heritage 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.”

Dr Bernie McConnell, SMRU’s deputy director, said: “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’s UK corporate and external affairs director, said: “This project is proof collaborations between government, science and the private sector can work to improve environment policy decisions. We are delighted to be able to provide Bernie and his team with access to our technology and consultancy.”

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