Experts to investigate mysterious seal deaths

Saturday 14 August 2010


Experts at the University of St Andrews have been drafted in to determine the cause of the mysterious deaths of 33 seals.

An investigation has been launched by the Scottish Government following the ‘unusual’ deaths of seals recently found washed up along the east coast of Scotland and England.

A team of scientists from the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews are currently investigating the potential cause of death of the animals who were found with a single, smooth-edged cut starting at the head and spiralling around the body.

The experts, who describe the markings as strange ‘corkscrew’ injuries, say they are not consistent with any known phenomenon such as those caused by fishing nets or boat propellers.

Professor Ian Boyd, Director of the Sea Mammal Research Unit, said, “We need to investigate the causes of these unfortunate deaths and how widespread the problem might be. This will inform any consideration of population impacts and potential mitigation.

“This investigation is important because these deaths come on top of significant declines observed in some Scottish common or harbour seal populations. SMRU welcomes any reports from the public of dead seals being washed ashore.”

Scotland’s common (or harbour) seals are in decline in the Northern Isles, Firth of Tay and Strathclyde, although experts are unsure why. The Special Committee on Seals Report for 2008 estimated there are 164,000 grey seals in Scotland, 90 per cent of the estimated UK population, and a minimum of 20,000 common seals.

Within the last two months seven incidents involving both common and grey seals have been reported in St Andrews Bay and the Firth of Forth.  Six further incidents, which took place in 2008 and 2009 in the same areas, have since been linked to these phenomena.  Meanwhile, four incidents were reported in Norfolk in July, part of twenty such occurrences in that area over the last year. Similar unsolved seal mortalities have been reported off the Atlantic coast of Canada in the past ten years.

The study was launched by Scotland’s Environment Secretary, Richard Lochhead, who commented, “Seals form an important part of Scotland’s rich marine environment and it’s critical that we establish the cause of these strange seal deaths and do all we can to protect our seal populations, particularly as numbers have reduced in recent years.

“I would encourage any member of the public who encounters a seal carcass to contact the Sea Mammal Research Unit, which will help to establish the scale of these issues.

“The Scottish Government has already taken decisive action to provide additional protection for the endangered common seals, as set out in our new Marine Act.”

A number of seal carcasses have been sent to pathologists at the Scottish Agricultural College for autopsy. Working closely with Government and Scottish Natural Heritage, the St Andrews researchers hope that the cause of these injuries and the scale of the problem are identified as soon as possible.

Members of the public, who may have documented similar events are being asked to send information or photographs to [email protected], or by calling 01334 462 630.


Note to Editors

Dr David Thompson of the Sea Mammal Research Unit is available for interview on 0784 0842 642 or email [email protected]

Scottish Government contact – Tom Whittles:  0131 244 2614 / 07917 588 519

For further information on seal populations visit

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews

Contact Gayle Cook, Senior Communications Manager on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email [email protected]

Ref:  seal deaths 150810

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