Harbour seals are regaining top-down control in a coastal ecosystem

Research output: Working paperAcademic


Historic hunting has led to severe reductions of many marine mammal species across the globe. After hunting ceased, some populations have recovered to pre-exploitation levels, and may again act as a top-down regulatory force on marine ecosystems. Also the harbour seal population in the international Wadden Sea grew at an exponential rate following a ban on seal hunting in 1960's, and the current number ~38,000 is close to the historic population size. Here we estimate the impact of the harbour seal predation on the fish community in the Wadden Sea and nearby coastal waters. Fish remains in faecal samples and published estimates on the seal's daily energy requirement were used to estimate prey selection and the magnitude of seal consumption. Estimates on prey abundance were derived from demersal fish surveys, and fish growth was estimated using a Dynamic Energy Budget model. GPS tracking provided information on where seals most likely caught their prey. Harbour seals from the Dutch Wadden Sea fed predominantly on demersal fish, e.g. flatfish species (flounder, sole, plaice, dab), but also sandeel, cod and whiting. Total fish biomass in the Wadden Sea was insufficient to sustain the estimated prey consumption of the entire seal population year-round. This probably explains why seals also acquire prey further offshore in the adjacent North Sea, only spending 13% of their diving time in the Wadden Sea. Still, seal predation was estimated to cause an average annual mortality of 43% and 60% on fish in the Wadden Sea and adjacent coastal zone, respectively. There were however large sources of uncertainty in the estimate, including the migration of fish between the North Sea and Wadden Sea, and catchability estimates of the fish survey sampling gear, particularly for sandeel and other pelagic fish species. Our estimate suggested a considerable top-down control by harbour seals on demersal fish. However predation by seals may also alleviate density-dependent competition between the remaining fish, increasing fish growth, and partly compensating for the reduction in fish numbers. This study shows that recovering coastal marine mammal populations could potentially become an important component in the functioning of shallow coastal systems.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 8 Mar 2018

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