University and Seal Project join forces to encourage citizen scientists to support seal conservation

People are being encouraged to report seal sightings as part of efforts to learn more about the local grey seal population and engage more citizen scientists in marine conservation.

The University of Plymouth and The Seal Project have joined forces to launch the Seal Spotter project on the Epicollect app through which people can log an individual’s location, appearance, behaviour and condition.

The app, which is free to download, features advice from the project team on how members of the public can report sightings and how they should behave around the seals themselves.

It then enables people to record whether the seals are alone or in a group, if they are resting, feeding or fighting, or whether they have become entangled in plastics or are showing other signs of injury or ill-health.

The resulting data will be used by the charity to accurately map the health of the local population.

It will also be shared with similar charities, including the national Seal Alliance and The Seal Research Trust, and used to create a clearer picture of seal communities right across the UK.

The project came about as a result of discussions between Lecturer in Physiology and Behaviour Dr Katherine Herborn and Duncan Kenny, Co-founder of The Seal Project, about how to monitor the impacts of an injury or short-term environmental stressor on seals’ long-term health and behaviour.

It has since been taken forward by Laura Cook, a Masters student in Zoo Conservation Biology within the School of Biological and Marine Sciences, who developed the app project and has been monitoring the responses.

Since it was launched over the Christmas break, more than 60 sightings have been recorded on both well-known South Devon individuals and new pups recruiting to area, while others have also come in from across Devon and Cornwall and elsewhere in the UK.

Laura’s dissertation research will explore who in the community is more likely to fill in a sighting report and look at ways to encourage engagement with the work of the Seal Project. She said:

“We worked closely on the app to make sure it would generate the data the Seal Project needed as well as being easy for people to use. It has been great to see the sightings coming in and to see how interested people are in seals and their conservation. I have always been interested in both citizen science and conservation, and this has been a great way to combine them. It has also been really exciting to work with the charity and see how passionate they, and the people they work with, are about seals.”

The Seal Project is based in Brixham, and its core aims include advancing conservation of the area’s grey seal population through research and education. Mr Kenny said:

“Transient seal populations are increasing in South Devon year on year and we need to find the best ways of supporting them sustainably. In Brixham especially, they tend to congregate for four months during the breeding season and, as a key fishing and tourist centre, it is an excellent place to examine how human activity can impact them. The app is a great way to engage all sections of our community and gives us the opportunity to get the public’s help in gathering good quality data in a systematic way that we can use.”

The University and The Seal Project are currently looking at developing the app so it could potentially be used to track national seal sightings in far greater detail. They are also exploring how the research itself can be expanded as and when current COVID restrictions begin to be lifted.

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