New intern

Please welcome Nicola Mauro, who is doing an internship with us at the Icelandic Seal Center in collaboration with the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute. Nicola is a master student in Biology of organisms and ecology at UCLouvain (Belgium). In his internship, Nicola will be monitoring the abundance of harbour and grey seals with our research team. He will among others look at environmental and anthropogenic factors that might affect the behaviour and spatial distribution of the harbour seal.

Changes in the Icelandic harbour seal population over a 40 year period

The picture was taken during the aerial census of 2020 (Sandra Granquist)

A new paper about trends in the Icelandic harbour seal population was recently published. The title of the paper is “The Icelandic harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) population: trends over 40 years (1980–2020) and current threats to the population”. Sandra Granquist, Head of Seal research department and senior reseacher at the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute of Iceland is the author of the paper. Below is a summary of the paper (abstract) and a link to the paper.


Regular harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) population censuses are necessary to monitor fluctuations in the population size and to inform seal management. In this paper, the status of the Icelandic harbour seal population is presented, along with trends in the population over a 40-year period. In total, 13 full aerial censuses were carried out during the moulting season (July-August) between 1980 and 2020. The most recent census from 2020 yielded an estimate of 10,319 (CI 95%= 6,733-13,906) animals, indicating that the population is 69.04% smaller than when systematic monitoring of the population commenced in 1980 (33,327 seals). The observed decrease puts the population on the national red list for threatened populations. Trend analyses indicate that most of the decline occurred during the first decade, when the population decreased about 50% concurrently with large human-induced removals of harbour seals. After that point, the population decline slowed down but continued, and currently the population seems to fluctuate around a stable minimum level. The sensitive conservation status of the population underlines the need to assess and sustainably manage current threats to the population, including human-induced removals, anthropogenic disturbance, and various environmental factors such as contaminants, climate change and fluctuation in prey availability. Furthermore, it is urgent to continue regular censuses and to increase monitoring of population demographic factors.

Click here to go to the full text

New Paper Published

A new paper titled Gender difference in biospheric values and opinions on nature management actions: The case of seal watching in Iceland was published in the peer-reviewed journal Ocean & Coastal Management. It can be accessed here. It was written by Cécile M. Chauvat, who works for the Northwest Iceland Research Center in collaboration with the Icelandic Seal Center, Dr. Sandra M. Granquist from the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute and Head of the seal research department at the Icelandic Seal Center, and Dr. Jessica Aquino, Assistant Professor in the department of Rural Tourism at Hólar University.

Gender differences in biospheric value orientation and opinions on wildlife management have the potential to be used as a management tool in wildlife watching settings. This research note builds on a dataset from Chauvat et al. (2021) to investigate gender differences in biospheric value orientation and opinions on seal watching management of visitors at seal watching sites post hoc. Questionnaires (n = 597) were collected at three sites in Northwest Iceland. It was found that when genders were compared, women had stronger biospheric value orientations, were more aware of potential anthropogenic impacts on seals, believed to a higher extent that regulations were useful in terms of decreasing impact, and were more positive towards most management actions suggested in the questionnaire. It is argued that further understanding of the gender dynamics regarding pro-environmental attitudes may be a valuable element in the context of sustainable wildlife tourism management.

A new research paper on the origin and expansion of harbour seals

Recently, a paper on harbour seal origin and distribution based on genetic studies was published in the scientific journal Molecular Ecology. It´s titled is Origin and expansion of the world’s most widespread pinniped: Range-wide population genomics of the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina)“. Sandra M. Granquist, a specialist at the pelagic division at the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute and Head of department at The Icelandic Seal Center is one of the authors.

The harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) is the most widely distributed pinniped, occupying a wide variety of habitats and climatic zones across the Northern Hemisphere. Intriguingly, the harbour seal is also one of the most philopatric seals, raising questions as to how it colonised virtually the whole of the Northern Hemisphere. To shed light on the origin, remarkable range expansion, population structure and genetic diversity of this species, we used genotyping‐by‐sequencing to analyse ~13,500 biallelic SNPs from 286 individuals sampled from 22 localities across the species’ range. Our results point to a Northeast Pacific origin, colonisation of the North Atlantic via the Canadian Arctic, and subsequent stepping‐stone range expansions across the North Atlantic from North America to Europe, accompanied by a successive loss of genetic diversity. Our analyses further revealed a deep divergence between modern North Pacific and North Atlantic harbour seals, with finer‐scale genetic structure at regional and local scales consistent with strong philopatry. The study provides new insights into the harbour seal’s remarkable ability to colonise and adapt to a wide range of habitats. Furthermore, it has implications for current harbour seal subspecies delineations and highlights the need for international and national red lists and management plans to ensure the protection of genetically and demographically isolated populations.

You can find the paper here:

Population estimate and advice regarding the harbor seal 2021

A new population estimate for Icelandic harbor seal and hunting policy advice are available in the project between the Icelandic Seal Center (ICS) and The Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI). MFRI and ICS recommend that direct hunting of harbor seals remain limited and that improved measures be taken to reduce seal bycatch in net fisheries, to allow the seal population to reach the management threshold set by the government. Additionally, the MFRI and ICS recommend that measures be taken to limit human disturbance of harbor seals where possible, especially during the pupping and molting season from May-August.

Link to the advice—Icelandic only.

The advice is based on the recently completed harbor seal population size estimate conducted by the MFRI, in conjunction with the Icelandic Seal Center. The estimate is based on an aerial census conducted in the summer of 2020.

Link to the technical report.

According to the estimate, the harbor seal population is about 10,300 animals, which is 69% less than in the first estimate in 1980. The estimate shows an increase of 9% over the last calculated estimate from 2018. The results from recent years suggest that the population is fluctuating around a historical minimum. According to the government’s management objectives, the minimum threshold should be 12,000 seals. Since the results of the new estimate are 14% below the threshold, further conservation measures are necessary.

A more detailed description of the 2020 census, divided by regions and compared to previous censuses is available in a new report published in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research (Haf- og vatnarannsókir).

Link to the newest report about the Icelandic harbor seal.