Sustainable Cultural Tourism Award Nomination

Sponsoring organizations

The Icelandic Seal Center is very excited to announce our selection as a candidate for the ‘Destination of Sustainable Cultural Tourism’ Awards 2019. The winners and runners up will be announced at the European Cultural Tourism Network (ECTN) Awards ceremony to take place in Granada, Spain, on 24 October 2019. The Awards ceremony will be held during the annual ECTN Conference 2019 that will take place on 24-26 October 2019 at Museo Memoria de Andalucía, Granada, Spain.


The Icelandic Seal Center (ISC) is an example of a community-academic partnership. Established in 2005 as a community-owned non-profit the ISC is a local initiative aimed at developing sustainable and responsible tourism for Húnaþing vestra, and it continues to help in regional development with wildlife tourism as a focus. Academic partnerships with the ISC include Hólar University, The Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, and Náttúrustofa Norðurlands vestra. Seal Travel, which is a non-profit tourism agency owned by the ISC helps to establish networks of tourism businesses in Húnaþing vestra and other regional partnerships for tourism development. The ISC has an integral role in nurturing the local identity and distinctiveness of a community, strengthening sustainable rural tourism development, and empowering people at the local level to develop policies for the protection of natural and cultural resources.

New harbour seal census

Photo: Sandra M. Granquist

The Marine and Freshwater Research Institute has, in cooperation with the Icelandic Seal Center, completed a new harbour seal census. The report can be found here. The harbour seal population is estimated to be 9400 animals. Regular population censuses were initiated in 1980 to monitor trends in the population size of Icelandic harbour seals. The current estimate is 72% smaller than in 1980, but 23% larger than in 2016 when the last complete population census was conducted.

Most of the observed decrease in the population occurred between the years 1980 and 1989. Results indicate that the population currently seems to fluctuate around a minimum stock level.

The current estimate is 21% below the governmentally issued management objective for the minimum population size of harbour seals in Iceland (12,000 animals).

To raise the numbers in the population to match the management objective, the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI) advises that direct hunting should be banned and that actions must be taken to reduce by-catch of seals in commercial fisheries. If limited hunting will be allowed, MFRI advises that a hunting management system should be initiated, and that reporting of all seal hunts should be mandatory. MFRI further advises that attempts to minimize anthropogenic disturbance of harbour seal colonies are initiated, in particular during breeding and moulting seasons between May and August. The advice can be found here.

A new project beginning

On Friday 28 June at 09:00, Cécile Chauvat will be giving a presentation on her research proposal about biospheric values of tourists at seal watching spots in North-Western Iceland. Cécile’s research will assess the correlation between biospheric values of tourists and their knowledge of their impacts on the biosphere.

A new person joins our team

Naturalist, Einar Ó. Þorleifsson, has taken the reins of a new job with the Northwest Iceland Nature Centre, inconjuction with  the Icelandic Seal Center. He has a degree in geography with concentrations in biology and geology. Einar has spent countless hours over many years studying birds. His specialties are wetlands ecology and wetland birds. In addition, Einar has participated in a wide body of research on the distribution of birds in Iceland, especially those that settled Iceland from the Twentieth Century until today.

Einar will be working on various natural science studies, most based in ornithology, in the wide area under the purview of the Northwest Iceland Nature Centre. His main office is provided by the Icelandic Seal Center in Hvammstangi.

Those who would like to share information about interesting birds (for instance, new nesting sites) or discoveries of plants or unusual geological phenomena are welcome to look to him for more information.

Sustainable Tourism Development in the Nordic Arctic

The Icelandic Seal Center has been invited to join a research network called, “Sustainable Tourism Development in the Nordic Arctic.” Dr. Jessica Aquino, Head of Tourism Research, will be ISC’s representative for the network. The aims of this network are to investigate how to utilize existing human capital, natural resources (especially living marine resources), and infrastructure capacity to develop innovative sustainable tourism that can diversify and make Arctic economic development more resilient. This is to be achieved through three interrelated workshops in the Arctic regions of the Nordic countries. The first workshop was hosted in Northern Norway in April 2018. The seconded workshop will be hosted in Northern Iceland from 18-22 March 2019. Funding for this network is provided by NordRegio, UArctic, and the International Network Program of the Danish Agency for Science and Higher Education.

Icelandic Culture and Nature marked as “Good Practice Example”

In 2018 Húnaklúbburinn invited a youth group from Sweden to join us in Hvammstangi to learn about each other’s culture and our connection with nature. The project was funded by Erasmus+ and supported by Húnaþing vestra, Félagsmiðstöðin Órion, Hólar University College, and the Icelandic Seal Center. This project was marked as a “Good Practice Example.”

Projects such as Húnaklúbburinn are a great example of university-community partnerships that sees communities as intellectual spaces. Húnaklúbburinn’s collaborative efforts enable the youth, and those who are interested in strengthening youth programs, to participate effectively in their community to achieve a common good.

Húnaklúbburinn is a children’s nature club, established in 2016 for the youth of Húnaþing vestra, with the purpose of connecting youth and nature by using a combination of environmental education and nature-based recreation. It has two basic principles, that children have the right and responsibility in shaping their own futures and the futures of their communities; and that children develop a genuine appreciation of the natural environment—and a sense of their own competence—through direct interaction with nature.

Jessica Aquino manages and directs Húnaklúbburinn. She is also an Assistant professor at Hólar University College and is Head of the Tourism Research Department at the Icelandic Seal Center.



A new grey seal population assessment

A grey seal census was conducted by The Marine and Freshwater Institute in co-operation with The Icelandic Seal Center. The results from the survey are presented in a report which can be found here.

The Icelandic grey seal population is estimated to be 6300 animals, while the population was estimated at 4200 animals the last time a census was conducted in 2012. The population was approximately 32% smaller than when the first census was conducted in 1982 when the population was roughly 9200 animals. Analysis for the period 2005–2017 revealed no statistically significant trend for the total population size since the current population size is close to the estimated population size of 2008/9 and slightly larger than the estimate of 2005.

In 2017 the population was estimated to be larger than the governmental management objective for the grey seal population of 4100 animals. According to the Icelandic red list for threatened populations, which is based on criteria put forward by IUCN, the grey seal population should at its current level be considered as “Vulnerable”. Based on the last census from 2012, the population was considered as “Endangered”.

The results show that the peak of the pupping period varied from 2 October (Frameyjar in Breiðafjörður) to 24 October (Strandir). Breiðafjörður was the most important pupping area in Iceland, with 58% of the total estimated pup production in 2017. Other important breeding sites were Strandir and Skagafjörður in NW Iceland, as well as Surtsey and Öræfi on the South Coast.

The status of the grey seal population is considerably better than that of the Icelandic harbor seal population, which has declined by 77% from 1980 when censuses commenced, and a decrease of one third was observed between the years 2011 and 2016 when a census was last conducted. The Icelandic harbor seal population is considered as “Critically endangered” according to the Icelandic red list.

Þjóðarspegillinn: Responsible Tourism in Arctic Seascapes (ReSea)

ReSea held a session on Responsible Tourism in Arctic Seascapes at Þjódarspegillinn 2018 on 26 October 2018. The research network called ReSea (Responsible Tourism in Arctic Seascapes) began on June 2016 as a cooperation between the Icelandic Seal Center, Hólar University College, the Icelandic Tourism Research Center (ITRC), the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, and the Arctic University of Norway. It has since grown to include a total of 20 experts from 11 institutions and organizations from 5 countries with an aim in conducting interdisciplinary research guided by inter-sectoral knowledge. ReSea research is focused on the following guiding research question. “How can tourism be performed responsibly in Arctic seascapes?” The long-term purpose of this network is to connect international experts and stakeholders to address the need for sustainable tourism development and responsible tourism practices in Arctic coastal communities and seascapes. Researchers during this session discussed their work exploring the understanding of sustainable tourism and responsible management practices in Arctic seascapes. Their work highlights the importance of collaborating with a variety of stakeholders and academics from both the social and natural sciences which incorporates interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral research and knowledge.

Þjóðarspegillinn 2018 Session Agenda:
Responsible Tourism in Arctic Seascapes (ReSea)

12:00-12:05—Jessica Faustini Aquino (Chair)

Discussion of the ReSea Network and an Introduction to Today’s Session

12:05-12:30—Auður H. Ingólfsdóttir (Chair)

Whale watching and sustainable development

Auður is a researcher at the Icelandic Tourism Research Centre (ITRC). Her research interests are in the field of sustainable tourism and include topics such as climate change and tourism, nature-based tourism, and CSR within the tourist sector.

12:30-12:55—Þórný Barðadóttir

Cruise ship visits to coastal communities

Þórný is a researcher at the Icelandic Tourism Research Centre (ITRC). Her research interests are in regional tourism development where recent research projects have taken focus in on-land service of cruise ships and the regional tourism linked to passenger visits.

12:55-13:20—Jessica Faustini Aquino, Georgette Leah Burns & Sandra Magdalena Granquist

Developing a framework for responsible wildlife tourism

Jessica holds a joint position as the Head of Tourism Research at the Icelandic Seal Center and Assistant Professor at Hólar University College in the Department of Rural Tourism. Her research interests are in tourism experience from the perspective of residents and tourists; volunteer tourism; sustainable tourism and responsible tourism practices; and the potential contribution that tourism has on community development and responsible management of natural areas.

13:20-13:45—Sandra M. Granquist and Jessica Faustini Aquino

Effects of seal watching activities on harbour seal behaviour: The importance of interdisciplinary management approaches

Sandra holds a joint position as the Head of Seal Research at the Icelandic Seal Center and Specialist at The Marine and Freshwater Research Institute in the Pelagic division. Sandra’s research interests range from animal population biology to responsible wildlife tourism, including: Monitoring of Icelandic seal populations and management advice; Studies on animal behaviour; Anthropogenic interactions with marine mammals, such as effects of tourism on marine mammal ecology; Transferring of scientific knowledge to society.

13:45-14:00—Final discussions with all of the presenters

Camera Trap Project Update

María checking on Camera 1.

Since their installation in May, two automatic trail cameras have been photographing two skerries off the west coast of Vatnses. The cameras turn themselves each morning at day break, they then take one photo every 10 minutes, then they shut themselves off when darkness comes after sunset. Also, they are triggered by motion (a feature we cannot shut off) so we get extra photos every time a bird flies close enough to the sensor. Each month, researchers go out to check on the cameras and to switch out batteries and memory cards. The photos are then downloaded to a hard drive and we are combing through the ever-growing collection of photographs to record when seals were hauled out on the rocks and how many there were.

A group of harbor seals hauled out on Skerry 2.

The data collected during this project will be useful in more ways than one. First, it’s a pilot study on the presence and behavior of seals at a location that is being considered for development of a new seal watching site. An important part of the feasibility of this site for seal watching is seal activity. So far, it looks like there are seals hauled out there every time the tide is low enough for the skerries to be exposed. We have been seeing female seals with pups as well as individual seals and adults with no pups. Once all photographs from this year are reviewed, the data will be analyzed to look for trends in behavior. We can investigate changes in the number of seals hauling out at the location from May through December. We can also use these series of photos to estimate how long individual seals on the rocks and possibly to gain insight into what factors influence the patterns we see in their behavior.

Sometimes there is not a breath of movement in the air. Here, some pups born earlier in the summer lie, undisturbed on Skerry 2.

This is being considered a pilot study, which means that we don’t yet know the full detailed results we will get from this. Probably, this project will inspire new questions for further investigation using more precise methods to collect more in-depth data.

Hauled out seals appear to be relaxed at this site even when the weather is not what we would consider perfect. In fact, seals can overheat if the weather is too warm, as they are adapted to the cold water environment.

The Camera Trap Project

The first images from one of our trail cameras shows two skerries and some seals with pups in the center of the bottom of the frame.

A new project is underway. Researchers are collaborating with museum staff in a project to assess the viability of a new site to develop for seal watching and outdoor recreation on Vatnsnes. In order to do this, we have set up two camera traps that record photographs at a set interval of time all day. Researchers then stop in to collect memory cards once each week while they are out counting seals at known haul-outs.

Seals prefer hauling out on skerries that are separated from land by a channel of water. Many of these skerries are more than 100 m from land. In order to set up automatic cameras to photograph seals up close would mean attaching the cameras directly to the skerry. This may be done at some point in the future if funding is acquired. In that case, we would be setting up cameras on those skerries that rise far enough out of the water to remain exposed at high tide. That does not fall within the scope of this pilot project, but is certainly something we are interested in. The cameras we have set up are easily accessible from land with minimal disturance of the seals in the area. If we get the chance to put cameras on serries, we will expect to leave them there for a much longer period between maintenance trips, so as to avoid disturbing the seals.

Installation of one of the trail cameras at the top of the cliff overlooking the skerries we want to monitor

The trail cameras that we currently own needed to be placed at some distance from where the seals haul out. At the location we have chosen, there are two skerries close together and the landowner has told us that a large group of seals congregates here with some regularity. So, we set up two cameras to cover the entirety of the two skerries. These cameras will be in place for some months. All seals observed will be recorded and that data will contribute to the assessment of this location as a possible new seal watching site.

The trail camera is at the top of the cliff on the right hand side of the frame.

Photographs from this project will soon be on display at the Seal Center Museum in Hvammstangi. Looking carefully at images such as these that are taken from some distance is a good way to train your eye to recognize seals even before you can see them clearly. Seals are often easily visible from Iceland’s coastal roads, if you know what to look for. While there are some designated seal watching areas on Vatnsnes and in a few other places in Iceland, a vigilant passenger in the car is likely to spot seals in unmarked spots. Photographs such as the one above can help you to find seals here and elsewhere.

As with many of the projects conducted here, funding for this project comes from outside the Seal Center. Specifically, we appreciate the funding we have received from the National Marine Aquarium for this project.