Protecting grey seals

The presence of grey seals on UK shores are rapidly declining. Anthropogenic effects are threatening the ecological security of the species. As veterinary nurses we ensure the wellbeing of our patients and as a human race we have a moral responsibility to protect our ecosystem and the species that function within in. This article aims to inspire veterinary nurses and future conservationists to use our transferable skills to ensure the welfare and the future of this species.

Words & photographs by Ellie Meikle
Additional photographs by Ellen Cuylaerts, Jeff Hester & Unsplash

Grey seals are found in and on the shores of the North Atlantic Ocean. Although they may seem common, there are only approximately 650,000 grey seals left in our oceans, with 120,000 of them calling UK shores their home. In the early 20th century, there were only 500 grey seals in the UK. Although grey seals are listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Bowen, D. 2016), they are globally rare with 50% of the species calling the UK their home. It is estimated that there are now less grey seals than there are African elephants due to fishing, pollution, human disturbance, and climate change. More recently they have been protected under the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 and the Marine Act 2010 (The Wildlife Trust 2010). As a vital part of this complex ecosystem, humans have a responsibility to work towards their protection and to prevent their extinction.

Let’s take a look at some of the facts surrounding this species. As highly intelligent mammals, grey seals communicate verbally and non-verbally to each other and to warn off predators. As humans, it is our duty to learn how to understand seal behaviour to reduce stress, therefore reducing the problems that stress causes. Aggression occurs in grey seal colonies, especially when they are coming to shore due to fighting for space on land. During the mating season, bulls will fight to assert dominance over the females, and this will cause injury and scarring. During these battles, seal pups may be crushed and even females can be suffocated under the weight of males. Seals are generally solitary mammals, only coming together to breed, so therefore their tolerance for other seals is low. Territorial fights are much more common due to the encroachment of human activity. They will perform a wave like motion, which may seem like a friendly wave to humans, but it is in fact the seal feeling threatened.

In the water, seals can easily reach up to 35 kilometres per hour, but they are much clumsier and slower on land, only reaching 2 kilometres an hour. They come ashore to rest and digest their food, however if there is danger, they will scrabble over rocks instead of choosing a safer path, which will result in injury (Ecomare (2019). A relaxed, happy seal will ‘banana’ which means they form a banana shape with their body, it also helps keep their extremities warm and dry whilst being close to the water for a safe getaway. On average grey seals can eat 4 to 6% of their body weight each day; this only differs when the female is feeding a pup as the feeding mother loses up to a quarter of her body weight before her pup is weaned. The grey seals are effective hunters as they use their good eyesight, hearing, and their whiskers to find and catch the food. They often hunt in groups, catching crustaceans, squid, cod, pollock, haddock, and their diet varies by location, season, and age of the seal (Fisheries, N.O.A.A. 2022).

How do you spot them? Grey seals are mostly grey in colour but turn a mustard brown when they moult once a year. This makes the seals camouflaged in the water and when on land, people often mistake them for rocks. The bulls can weigh up to 300kg, with the females weighing 200kg, new-born pups weigh 15kg and by the time they leave their mother they should weigh 45kg to survive their first year alone. Grey seals have a thick layer of blubber to keep them warm, and sensitive whiskers. During the moult, they also lose whiskers. Studies have shown that they lose their whiskers symmetrically. They are sensitive and move independently, to detect vibrations in the water.

The whiskers aid balance, swimming and catching fish (Marine mammal science 2022). Their nostrils are parallel (which distinguishes them from common seals which have V-shaped nostrils). When the nostrils are closed, it means the nose muscles are relaxed. This will also help them when swimming under water as they can hold their breath for longer since the muscles are relaxed, which in turn means that they don’t require energy from aerobic cellular respiration. Therefore, the valuable oxygen can go elsewhere in the body to help them stay under for longer. When the seal requires a breath of oxygen from the surface, they must use the muscles to open the airtight. The grey seal’s incisors are used for grasping and tearing their prey, and the back molars are used for crushing shells. A grey seal’s eyes are quite large, this helps them see under the water when it is dark and see refracted light in the water (US Department of Commerce, N.O.and A.A. 2011).

As a veterinary nurse, I have learned that anaesthesia of a grey seal can be challenging from start to finish. Their adaptation to hold their breath underwater can be challenging to manage under anaesthesia due to apnoea and therefore the increase in CO2 and lack of O2 and the anaesthetic agent, and the wild nature of the species can be difficult to handle. Muzzles can be used on very young pups, but larger seals cannot be manually restrained so ‘pig boards’ are often used to create a path for these seals.

One of the biggest problems that seals face is malnutrition, whether that be from being separated at a young age from their mother, or not having enough food sources due to fishing and pollution. Malnutrition can cause growth defects, neurological disorders and become more susceptible to diseases they should be able to fight off. Additionally, seals are susceptible to a form of lungworm which, in a large burden, can cause respiratory problems such as coughing, bleeding, anorexic, and dyspnoea. Therefore, affected seals wouldn’t be able to hunt as effectively. Seals can also suffer from Canine Distemper Virus and can be fatal.

A lot of illnesses and diseases grey seals suffer from are due to humans, either fishing in the sea, or polluting the sea. Seal hospitals get numerous cases of blade injuries due to seals getting entangled in the boat’s propellers. Ghost netting can cause entanglement in seals due to their inquisitive behaviour; they can cause deep wounds and injuries.  Some injuries can be surgically fixed, which involves finding and capturing the seal, rehabilitation and eventually releasing it back into the wild. However, a lot of propeller injuries are fatal (Jennifer K. Olson, 2021). Due to an increase in pollution getting tipped into the sea, the more fish are getting poisoned by it, therefore as the seals eat the fish, they develop a bacteria overgrowth in their mouth, which can cause the flesh in their mouths to rot, until the bone of the jaw is exposed. Cruise ships and the international shipping trade has been found to be responsible for some of the ecosystem changes due to ‘ballast water’. Ballast water can cause a problem due to transporting plants, animals, bacteria, and virus’ out of their natural habitat and depositing them into non native environments which can affect the new environment and cause a decline in the native species.

As mentioned earlier, the biggest threats to grey seals come from humans. Even before birth, humans have been affecting the grey seal population. If an expecting mother is stressed and is flushed down ver jagged and hard rocks, it can cause her to abort the foetus. Likewise, seals looking to mate might not be able to go back to their safe spot, due to humans encroaching the land. If a colony of seals is on land, digesting their food, mating, moulting, or resting in between fishing trips, and humans disturb them, it will cause the seals to flush out either to sea or further in the rocks. When panicked, a seal will not look for the safest spot to escape to, they will simply flee, which may lead them to climbing over most jagged, harsh, and difficult rocks, causing injury and them to become stranded. As soon as a seal lifts its head, we have disturbed it, so it’s recommended to stay down wind, wear dark colours, and make as little noise as possible, from at least 150 feet away.

The pollution of our oceans further causes multiple problems for seals. Entanglement from fishing line, for example, can cause growth defects, limb losses, constriction, and open wounds, resulting in death if not reported and rescued in time. Plastics and microplastics are some of the biggest problems humans and marine life are facing every day. Plastics in the sea can be ingested by seals and other marine life, causing poisoning, disease, and fatality, in most cases the seals wont directly eat the plastic themselves. They will eat the fish that had eaten the plastic which results in bioaccumulation, the accumulation of chemicals in an organism where the intake exceeds the rate of excretion.

How can you help the conservation of grey seals? There are many ways we can help seals, from reducing their stress on land, to protecting them in the ocean. There are groups and organisations out there, such as the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) which supports, rescues, provides first aid, and rehabilitates marine wildlife. As a veterinary surgeon, or a registered veterinary nurse we can complete a Marine Medic Course, providing first aid and medication to injured marine life when required.

There are also volunteer groups that provide a warden type role on the beaches, to inform the public about the seal colonies and to help the public understand why we need to protect the grey seals and other marine wildlife. Volunteers can also visit schools, fundraise at events, and hold social media campaigns to be advocates for Grey Seals and the environment. By learning more about seal behaviour, we can ensure that we are doing the best for them, and not making their already difficult lives, more stressful and harmful. Even if you can only volunteer for a few hours, that’s a few hours that a seal pup can feed for, or the mothers get rest before they go out to fish again. So, every feed does really make a difference to the seal colonies.

When you see a seal, remember to stay down wind, to wear dark clothing, to speak quietly, to not bring dogs, to not chase the seals and to stay around 150m away from the seals. Grey seals go through a moult once a year, were they shed their cold fur, and replace it with new fur. During this time, humans must not disturb them as if they get flushed into the sea, they can develop hypothermia.

Conservation starts from home, and it is our duty as veterinary nurses to be advocates for all species of animals and to do our best to help them thrive in the ever-changing climate. As veterinary nurses our transferable skills and empathy can play a huge part in the welfare of this species, and it is our responsibility to inform as many people as possible to ensure they make the correct decision themselves.

Additional photographs by Ellen Cuylaerts, Jeff Hester & Unsplash

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