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The Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at St Andrews University in Fife is to connect harbour seals to the internet to try to understand why their populations are declining around Scotland.
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Both the Scottish government and Scottish Natural Heritage asked the SMRU to look into the declining population, which has been as great as 90% on 2,000 levels, around the north and east coast of Scotland and the Orkney Islands.
There are rising concerns for the future survival of harbour seals – one of only two seal species extant in the UK – if nothing is done to arrest the decline.
“This exciting, collaborative study is vital to help us to better understand the drivers of population change in Scottish harbour seals, and to evaluate the potential conservation and management options open to us,” said John Baxter, principal marine advisor at Scottish Natural Heritage.
To begin its research, SMRU turned to mobile network operator (MNO) and internet of things (IoT) supplier Vodafone to provide smartphone-based telemetric tag technology. SMRU pioneered the use of radio tags to monitor marine life in the early 1980s.
The lightweight tags will be attached to the fur at the back of the heads of a number of seals, and can be taken up to 200 metres beneath the surface. They fall off harmlessly when the seal moults.
The tags will record information from the seal when it surfaces or comes onto land and use Vodafone’s network to send it back to SMRU for analysis. This data will include location, diving behaviour and oceanic environmental conditions.
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The data will be also used to explore the human impact on the environment as it affects a number of marine policy areas for the Scottish government, from the growing number of offshore wind and wave turbines, to the seals’ interactions with salmon fisheries.
Vodafone said it was a significant improvement over previous data gathering methods because it will allow SMRU to directly control the active state of every tag’s SIM card from a single PC.
“Over the past 15 years, many of the harbour seal populations in the Northern Isles and on the north and east coasts of Scotland have been declining,” said SMRU deputy director Bernie McConnell.
“Marine data collected during this project on Orkney will help to assess the causes, management and mitigation options in relation to the harbour seals decline and to prioritise future research directions.”
This will be the first time machine-to-machine (M2M) technology has been directly used to monitor the well-being of marine mammals. It mirrors, to some extent, a project currently underway in the Philippines, where fishermen are using their smartphones to capture and monitor the movements of endangered dugongs.