Harbour Seal - Phoca vitulina
Status: Least Concern … Extremely shy on land, they will often become playful with humans in the water
Location: One of the most widespread seals - found in coastal waters throughout the Northern Hemisphere, from temperate to Polar regions.
Size: Adult males can grow up to 1.9 m long and 70-150 kg in weight. Females are slightly smaller.
Habitat: Harbour seals are mainly found in the coastal waters of the continental shelf and slope, and also commonly found in bays, rivers, estuaries and intertidal areas.
Main Threats: Many of the coastal areas that harbour seals live in are heavily fished. This means that harbour seals are often caught as bycatch or become entangled in fishing gear. Over fishing and global climate change may also impact the food chains that harbour seals depend upon for prey.
Outbreaks of viruses have killed thousands of harbour seals on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in Europe. In 1988 more than 20,000 harbour seals are estimated to have died from a distemper virus epidemic in European waters. A similar outbreak in 2002 killed approximately 30,000. Harbour seals haul out on the near shore often at coastal mainland sites – where they come into contact with waste from humans, pets, feral animals, and it is thought this presents an increased risk of exposure to these types of diseases.
Oil leaks, discharges and major oil spills are responsible for the death of many harbour seals each year and have long-term impacts on harbour seal health and their environment.
Harbour seals also take many commercially important fish species such as Atlantic cod, many kinds of salmon, herring, and flatfishes, and this aspect of their foraging puts them into conflict with coastal fisheries. Licensed killing to protect fisheries is allowed in UK, (Canada and USA) and occasionally used where other deterrents such as weighted nets and acoustic devices have been unsuccessful.
Foraging seals can come into conflict with coastal fisheries
Did you know?
- Harbour seals are usually extremely wary and shy on land. They lie close to shore so they can escape quickly from any threats.
- Harbour seals can be very approachable in water and scuba divers often report playful encounters with them.
- Male harbour seals roar underwater to attract females during the breeding season, and research has shown they have regional ‘dialects’.
- The UK hosts between 4% and 5% of the world population of harbour seals, with 85% of the UK population living in Scottish seas. Populations in Shetland, Orkney and the east coast of Scotland appear to be declining, but west coast populations are stable.
What MCS is doing:
- Campaigning to reduce marine litter and other forms of pollution that can harm harbour seals;
- In 2014, our Great British Beach Clean volunteers cleared litter from over 300 UK beaches;
- Working to ensure the establishment of a network of well-managed marine protected areas in UK waters to protect harbour seal habitat.