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Seal Facts ... continued

The best estimate on UK seal numbers comes from the Marine Mammal Research Unit. They estimate that in 2000 there were around 120,000 grey seals in British waters, which, at nearly half the world population, should make them a priority for protection. The common seal is not so common around Britain and our waters are home to about 36,000 from a global population of circa 500,000.

The big question is what do seals eat? The short answer is that they eat quite a lot! They have to to maintain their size and keep a good insulating layer of blubber to protect them from the cold. Fishery interests, depending on which branch you speak to, know all about the diet of seals. Ask a salmon netsman, angler or farmer and he or she will tell you seals eat salmon. Ask the master of a white fish trawler and you will learn that seals eat nothing but prime cod, halibut and pollock. Have a word with the lobster catcher and low and behold you discover that seals don't bother catching fish they just pinch the stinking bait out of lobster creels.

The reality is that seals eat fish, just about any fish they can catch. However scientific research indicates that they make no real difference to commercially sought fish stocks. The prime consumers of fish are…… fish! Every fish a seal eats might eat thousands of fish during its lifetime. Seals eat eels which in turn eat the eggs and young of other fish including salmon and sea trout.

Despite seals having a rather limited diet (they only eat fish) they are fourth in the fish-eating food chain, coming after fish, birds and humans. Seals are part of a complex food chain which would find it's own natural balance if it was not for the fact that humans, for every fish they keep, destroy hundreds of small fish (before they can reach breeding age) and non-target fish. We also catch around four tonnes of wild fish to produce every tonne of farmed salmon!

Contrary to popular belief the seal is not at the top of the marine food chain around our coasts. Orcas (the proper name for "killer" whales) often call in for a seal supper. In Shetland the Orcas catch seals close to shore and tourists go to see this example of nature in the raw.


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