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Just How Many Salmon Are Those Seals Eating?

By Pacific Salmon Foundation, 🕔Fri, Dec 4th, 2015


Seal experts anaesthesized seals to outfit them with custom beanies and backpacks to track their feeding behaviors.

In 2015, Pacific Salmon Foundation donors helped support 33 projects engaging 33 different partners in the Strait of Georgia. In the weeks leading up to year-end we'll be publishing you highlights of these projects. That's because this year-end we're asking supporters to make a tax-receiptable year-end donation to support efforts to restore a wild Coho and Chinook fishery in the Strait through our Salish Sea Marine Survival Project. If you donate by midnight on December 31, 2015, your donation will be doubled through our matching fund. Also, you will be entered to win a hand-carved First Nations artist proof reel.

PEETZ Outdoors is challenging donors to support the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project with a handcrafted mahogany and brass reel featuring carvings by Kwagiulth master carver Jason Henry Hunt. This is the last of six commissioned hand-numbered 'Artist Proofs' signed and uniquely embellished by the artist. All have been donated to charitable initiatives with some valued at more than $5,000 each through live auction. For every $100 tax-recieptable donation you make by December 31st at midnight, you will be entered to win this reel. So $500 means five entries! Your donation will support the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project to help restore wild Coho and Chinook fisheries in the Strait of Georgia, which have declined by 90% in the last two decades. 

In 2015, donors helped execute 30 projects engaging 33 partners in the Strait of Georgia. Many of those partners are providing access to salaried staff, vessels, expensive specialized equipment and labs. As a result, donors can expect a 4:1 leverage for every dollar they donate - meaning $1 has the impact of $4 thanks to donated and subsidized resources. One project was targeted at clarifying the impact of seal predation on juvenile Coho and Chinook.

Beanies and Backpacks to Investigate Seal Predation

20 seals were beach seined near Big Qualicum Hatchery. The seals had the opportunity to feed on 40,000 tagged Coho smolts from the hatchery. The goal of the project was to measure how many of these smolts would be consumed by the seals.

Harbour seals can consume a large number of juvenile Chinook and Coho salmon when the fish first enter marine waters. But their rate of predation may not be as large as some believe.A new research technique developed through the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project will address this vexing question that any angler who lost a salmon to a seal will appreciate. Click here to see photos from the project.

The new research – conducted by the Marine Mammal Research Unit at University of British Columbia (UBC) under Dr. Andrew Trites – involves using DNA techniques to identify prey in seal waste as well as the development of 'seal beanies' – new technology that allows researchers to track exactly how many salmon a seal consumes. The seal beanies are the creation of Austin Thomas and Brian Battaile, both PhD students at UBC working with Wildlife Computers in Redman, Washington.

Close-up of the custom beanie and 3-D backpack developed for the project.

Here's how it works. When a seal feeds on a tagged salmon and then hauls out of marine waters to rest, the tag's information captured by the beanie is automatically transmitted to a satellite, then down to Austin's lab at UBC. The tags emit a unique ID meaning salmon can be individually counted when swallowed and tracked by species, origin and age. The initial results were surprising.

Seal Predation: Surprising Results

During the first few nights after fish were released from the hatchery and had moved into marine waters, seals began consuming tagged Coho. The data was immediately transmitted back to UBC. After years of development, the system worked perfectly. What is most interesting to date, is that we only have confirmed feeding on tagged Coho salmon by three of the 20 seals equipped with receivers. This suggests that feeding on juvenile salmon may be an opportunistic behavior acquired by a limited number of seals.

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