A novel marine research project is using the latest technology to record and understand harbour seals’ behaviour. The Exploris Aquarium has teamed up with University College Cork as part of the EU funded, Loughs Agency led, SeaMonitor project to tag the female rehabilitated seals, affectionately known as Ariel and Merida, prior to their release on Sunday 17th November from Knockinelder Beach, Co Down.
Although seal pups have been rehabilitated and released by Exploris since 1989, this is the first time they have been tracked following release to give scientists a better understanding of how they fair post-release. Dr Mark Jessopp, the lead scientist from University College Cork, explains “we use state-of-the-art tags glued to the seals’ fur which drop off naturally during the seal’s annual moult, but until then provide information on where the seals are going as well as their dive behaviour. This gives us unique insights into post-rehabilitation survival and how juvenile seals learn to forage successfully in the wild”. It is hoped that the data will be used to inform better management and protection for harbour seals.
It’s the first release of rehabilitated seals this season from Exploris Aquarium, NI’s only seal rehabilitated facility, with more releases to come. “On average we take in about two dozen seals every year.”, says Exploris Curator, Peter Williams, “Seals are a protected species here in the UK and Europe so at Exploris we take in seal pups from all over the Northern Irish coast that have succumb to illness or have been affected by human interference and as a result abandoned by their mothers.”
Loughs Agency CEO, Sharon McMahon, explained: “This is an especially exciting time as the seals are the first species to be monitored since the project launched earlier this year. The Agency is proud to be leading the way alongside expert colleagues from statutory and academic institutions and a range of stakeholders that will ultimately produce dynamic management plans for some of our most important and vulnerable species.”
Discussing the importance of this work Gina McIntyre, CEO of the Special EU Programmes Body, said: “I’m delighted to hear about the progress of this pioneering EU INTERREG cross-border project, which has seen a tremendous amount of development in such a short space of time. These achievements ensure the safeguarding of our shared marine environment and continue the necessary conservation work to protect priority species and habitats just like Ariel and Merida. The significant progress so far, can be attributed to the strong cross-border partnership, combined with innovative marine technology. The expertise and determination of Sea Monitor’s project partners is helping push the boundaries of marine research in the seas not only around Northern Ireland, but in Ireland and Western Scotland.”
The work is part of SeaMonitor, a unique marine research project, the first of its kind in Europe, studying the seas around Ireland, Western Scotland and Northern Ireland. The project is led by the Loughs Agency and supported by another eight leading marine research institutions using innovative marine species tracking technology to better understand and protect vulnerable marine life in our oceans.
The SeaMonitor project will deliver Europe’s largest telemetric marine array and spatial models supporting the conservation of basking shark, cetaceans, salmon, seals and skate. It will also provide three Management Plans; one for skate in the area from Loch Sunart to the Sound of Jura and two for salmon in both the River Foyle and Clyde estuaries.
Funding for the SeaMonitor project has been provided by the EU’s INTERREG VA Programme (Environment Theme), which is managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), to the tune of €4.6m. Match-funding for this project has been provided by the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in Ireland. This substantial investment will also extend the existing network of ‘smart’ buoys and oceanographic models – delivered by sister projects COMPASS and MarPAMM – so that a line of acoustic receivers runs between the island of Ireland and Scotland.
For more information about the project check out www.loughsagency.org/seamonitor or follow the project on Twitter (@SeaMonitor1)
All media enquiries to Loughs Agency +44 (0) 28 7134 2100.