Ecology, tourism and management of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina)
Sammanfattning: In cases where human and wildlife are co-using the same geographical areas and resources, management issues often get complex and stakeholder conflicts are common. The Icelandic harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) population is rapidly decreasing, but direct culling of seals still occurs. At the same time seals are becoming an important resource due to increased interest in wildlife watching. Despite the complicated management situation, the Icelandic harbour seal population is one of the least studied pinniped populations in the world. Mapping the typical haul-out pattern is an important foundation for further studies. In paper I haul-out behaviour of harbour seals was investigated and a seasonal haul-out pattern was detected with the maximum number of seals hauling out during summer. A bimodal distribution curve was found during the summer time, suggesting that pupping period occurs in late May to early June, while moulting occurs in late July to early August. Tidal state, air-temperature and wind-speed affected the haul-out boots. Today, the main reason for culling harbour seals in Iceland is to reduce harbour seal predation on salmonids, despite limited knowledge on the effect of seal predation on salmonid populations and salmon angling. The diet of harbour seals that haul out in the estuary area of Bjargós and Ósar in NW-Iceland was therefore investigated using hard-part (paper II) and DNA metabarcoding analysis (paper III). Both methods showed that the main prey species were sand eels, flatfishes, gadoids, herring and capelin, while salmonids were not an important prey in this area. Based on these results, culling of harbour seals in the area is not likely to have a positive effect on salmonid angling. These results have crucial management implications, especially in the light of the severe decline in the Icelandic harbour seal population. Potential effects of seal watching tourism on the harbour seal population must also be considered in management plans. In paper IV, we investigated the effects of land based seal watching on seal behaviour and found that spatial distribution and vigilance was affected by tourists. Calm tourists behaviour had less effect, meaning that disturbance could be reduced if tourist behaviour is modified. In paper V, this line of investigation was followed by analysing knowledge transfer from academia to the tourist industry and a model was presented where a synergy effect of working interdisciplinary is hypothesised. Finally, in paper VI, the effect of signage on tourist behaviour was studied. Empirical testing showed that teleological information is more effective than ontological in terms of modifying general tourist behaviour. In this thesis, I present new knowledge on behaviour and diet of harbour seals, as well as new empirical findings on tourist behaviour in wildlife tourism settings. Further I explore interdisciplinary management approaches for seal watching tourism. The findings presented in this thesis have an important value within academic research in environmental-, life- and social sciences and the knowledge can be applied in several areas of harbour seal management in Iceland and elsewhere.
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