Using satellite telemetry and aerial counts to estimate space use by grey seals around the British Isles


J. Matthiopoulos, NERC Sea Mammal Research Unit, Gatty Marine Laboratory, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife KY16 8LB, UK (fax +44 1334 462632; e-mail


  • 1In the UK, resolving conflicts between the conservation of grey seals, the management of fish stocks and marine exploitation requires knowledge of the seals’ use of space. We present a map of grey seal usage around the British Isles based on satellite telemetry data from adult animals and haul-out survey data.
  • 2Our approach combined modelling and interpolation. To model the seals’ association with particular coastal sites (the haul-outs), we divided the population into subpopulations associated with 24 haul-out groups. Haul-out-specific maps of accessibility were used to supervise usage estimation from satellite telemetry. The mean and variance of seal numbers at each haul-out group were obtained from haul-out counts. The aggregate map of usage for the entire population was produced by adding together the haul-out-specific usage maps, weighted by mean number of animals using that haul-out.
  • 3Seal usage was primarily concentrated (i) off the northern coasts of the British Isles, (ii) closer to the coast than might be expected purely on the basis of accessibility from the haul-outs and (iii) in a limited number of marine hot-spots.
  • 4Although our results currently represent the best estimate of how grey seals use the marine environment around Britain, they are neither definitive nor equally precise for all haul-outs. Further data collection should focus in the south-west of the British isles and aerial counts should be repeated for all haul-outs.
  • 5Synthesis and applications. This work provides environmental managers with current estimates of grey seal usage and describes a methodology for maximizing data efficiency. Our results could guide government departments in licensing marine exploitation by the oil industry, in estimating grey seal predation pressure on vulnerable or economically important prey and in delineating marine special areas of conservation (SAC). Our finding that grey seal usage is characterized by a limited number of hot-spots means that the species is particularly suited to localized conservation efforts.