Published: 29.08.2019 Updated: 04.09.2019
Over a period of eleven years, marine scientists collected stomach and stool samples from grey seals in Finnmark, Nordland and Rogaland.
In total they analysed fish remains found in 381 samples.
"The otolith of a fish is like a data logger, and it provides us with information about the individual’s species, age and size. It passes through the seal’s digestive system", explains marine scientist Kjell Tormod Nilssen.
By analysing the otoliths found in faeces on small islands and skerries, and in the stomachs of seals that had been shot, researchers were able to find out what each individual had eaten.
Cod and saithe were the most common fish in the seals’ diet in all regions, followed by wolffish, haddock and various types of flounder.
"But there are variations from place to place, season to season and year to year. For example, in Finnmark capelin was the only fish on the menu in 2009. In Rogaland, meanwhile, grey seals don’t eat much wolffish", says Nilssen.
"The seals’ diet is interesting in its own right. But it’s even more interesting to find out what impact the seals have on the fish stocks in question", says Nilssen.
That is because opinions are divided on the matter.
To work out the total amount of fish eaten by grey seals in Norway, the researchers multiplied the fish they had found by the needs of the whole Norwegian grey seal population, most recently estimated at 3,850 individuals.
After a complex calculation involving calorific values, they estimated that grey seals eat the following amounts of fish, split by management area:
In total, that’s 8,084 tonnes of fish. That number includes 3,059 tonnes of saithe, 2,598 tonnes of cod and 1,364 tonnes of wolffish.
By comparison, marine scientists recently recommended that fishers should be able to harvest up to 171,982 tonnes of saithe in the Barents Sea in 2020 without any negative long-term impact on the population.
For the northeast Arctic cod population, the most recent quota advice is 689,672 tonnes. The coastal cod, on the other hand, is struggling all along the Norwegian coast. Only DNA tests can distinguish northeast Arctic cod from coastal cod.
Marine scientist Kjell Tormod Nilssen believes that if the grey seals have any impact on the coastal cod population it is small.
"35,000-39,000 tonnes of coastal cod were fished commercially per year over the period 2003-2015. Anglers and tourists are estimated to have caught 13,000 tonnes in 2015. There is therefore little reason to believe that the grey seal’s consumption has any significant impact on the stock", he says.
Kjell Tormod Nilssen, Ulf Lindstrøm, Jon Ivar Westgaard, Lotta Lindblom, Taija-Riitta Blencke & Tore Haug (2019) Diet and prey consumption of grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) in Norway, Marine Biology Research, 15:2, 137-149, LINK: https://doi.org/10.1080/17451000.2019.1605182