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Saving Ireland's seals with GPS

UCC researcher Cian Luck is using GPS tagging and tracking to support seal conservation in Ireland. He shares his research with Jane Haynes

30 May 2019
Photos: Cian Luck

There is something about seals that seems to captivate us. On those occasions when they venture shore-bound, bobbing their slick heads above the water before dashing back below with the swish of their back flippers, it’s always for an audience.

While we may stop for a moment of appreciation of these magnificent creatures however, what many people may not be aware of, is just how important a role the seal plays in our ecosystem.

Cian Luck, a marine biologist at the SFI Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy (MaREI) and the School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Sciences, whose PhD research centres upon the conflict between our seal population and fisheries industry, explains:

“Seals are what we call top predators or higher predators, and that means that they feed right at the top of the food web.

“Because they’re reliant on everything that happens underneath them, by studying them we can actually get an idea of how well the entire ecosystem is doing. So, they’re really important animals for us to be studying.”

Indeed, so important that a collaborative research team – led by Cian – recently fixed extremely hi-tech GPS trackers to the heads of 10 grey seals from the Inishkea Islands, to monitor their movements and, ultimately, investigate what can be done to protect their population.

“By tracking the seals and other animals to see where they go, it gives us an idea of what the animals are doing at sea but, also, what part of the seas we need to protect and focus on for conservation,” explains Cian.

Cian’s research fieldwork has taken him to a range of exotic locations, from Antarctica to the Galapagos Islands. This, combined with his undergraduate degree in Zoology, and research masters in seal diet has equipped him with a unique expertise and insight into the creatures.

“I previously worked with the British Antarctic Survey. They sent me to a small research station on Bird Island, South Georgia, which is a thousand miles from anywhere,” he recalls.

“I lived and worked there for a year-and-a-half, with only three other people for most of that time, and thousands upon thousands of seals, albatross and penguins.”

It was during this Antarctic adventure that Cian gained a real insight into not only the life of the seal but also one of the other big threats it faces: pollution. Don’t be fooled by the picturesque images of crystal clear water and pristine snow that are synonymous with the Antarctic; pollution is wreaking havoc with natural life in the area.

“We would often come across seals that were wrapped in packing bands or rubbish, and we’d spend quite a lot of time unravelling them,” says Cian.

“It was hard to see, because often these seals had been entangled this way for years, as pups, and had grown into it. So, it gets quite horrific.

“Even in such a remote environment like that, we would do a beach clean every month. It was thousands of kilometres from anywhere, but even there you would find household rubbish – things that came off boats, stuff that had been chucked out. Plastics and rubbish are absolutely everywhere.”

The experience – plus another stint spent studying sea lions in the Galapagos – means Cian is uniquely positioned to help in identifying best conservation practice for Ireland’s seals.

"Because seals are reliant on everything that happens underneath them, by studying them we can actually get an idea of how well the entire ecosystem is doing" - Cian Luck

The data gathered from his latest research project, involving the GPS tracking of grey seals, will ideally help to answer key questions: how seals are getting into fishing nets, how often they are getting caught, and what can be done to prevent this.

Working closely with fishermen, Cian and the team are looking at key factors such as where the seals are travelling to in relation to fishing boats, and where the seals may be at risk of getting caught in nets. The next step is to feed that information back to relevant authorities – with whom they are in frequent dialogue – in order to help conservation efforts and have maximum research impact.

“We engage with fishing organisations, like the Inshore Fishery Forums,” explains Cian, “and we also produce reports for Bord Iascaigh Mhara.

“Our remit is to gather the information and put it out there, and deliver it to the policy-makers so they can make the best, most-informed decisions.”

Judging by the latest data, this dialogue is already proving invaluable for seal conservation efforts in Ireland.

“The data I collected has shown that fishing boats that fish very close to major seal colonies are much more likely to catch seals. That seems obvious, but it’s quite useful to know because then we can start making some really clear management decisions, like excluding fishing up to a certain distance in an area where there are concerns about seal bycatch,” explains Cian.

“It also seems that when the water clarity goes from very clear to very murky, the seals simply can’t see the nets and are more likely to get caught themselves, and swim into them by accident. So, if we could come up with a way that would make the nets more visible to the seals, then that might be a very quick and easy way of reducing seal bycatch.”

As the Inishkea Island seals continue their journey, we’ll be watching this space.


Follow this link for more information about research at MaREI.

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