Assessment of harbor seal predation on adult salmonids in a Pacific Northwest estuary

TitleAssessment of harbor seal predation on adult salmonids in a Pacific Northwest estuary
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsWright, B. E., Riemer S. D., Brown R. F., Ougzin A. M., and Bucklin K. A.
JournalEcological Applications
ISBN Number1051-0761
EndNote Rec Number495
Keywordsacoustic telemetry, coho salmon, conservation, cross-species amplification, feeding-habits, foraging behavior, genetics, harbor seal, marine mammal protection act, microsatellite loci, oncorhynchus kisutch, oncorhynchus-kisutch, oregon, pacific northwest, Phoca vitulina, phoca-vitulina, population, predation, river, scat, spatiotemporal sampling

The populations of many native species have increased or expanded in distribution in recent decades, sometimes with negative consequences to sympatric native species that are rarer or less adaptable to anthropogenic changes to the environment. An example of this phenomenon from the Pacific Northwest is predation by locally abundant pinnipeds ( seals and sea lions) on threatened, endangered, or otherwise depleted salmonid ( Oncorhynchus spp.) populations. We used survey sampling methodology, acoustic telemetry, and molecular genetics to quantify the amount of harbor seal ( Phoca vitulina) predation on a depressed run of coho salmon ( O. kisutch) and to determine whether some seals consumed a disproportionately higher number of salmonids than others. Based on a probability sample totaling 759.5 h of observation, we estimated that seals consumed 1161 adult salmonids ( 95% CI = 503 - 1818 salmonids) during daylight hours over an 18.9- km estuarine study area in Oregon during an 84- d period in fall 2002. Simultaneous tracking of 56 seals via an acoustic telemetry array indicated that a small proportion of marked seals ( 12.5%) exhibited behavior that was consistent with specialization on salmonids. These seals spent the majority of their time in the riverine portion of the study area and did so disproportionately more at night than day. Genetic analysis of 116 salmonid structures recovered from 11 seal fecal samples suggested that coho salmon accounted for approximately one- half of total salmonid consumption. Though subject to considerable uncertainty, the combined results lead us to infer that seals consumed 21% ( range 3 - 63%) of the estimated prespawning population of coho salmon. We speculate that the majority of the predation occurred upriver, at night, and was done by a relatively small proportion of the local seal population. Understanding the extent and nature of pinniped predation can provide important inputs into risk assessments and other modeling efforts designed to aid the conservation and recovery of salmonids in the Pacific Northwest. Such understanding may also help inform management actions designed to reduce the impact of pinniped predation on salmonids, which potentially range from shortterm lethal removal programs to long- term ecosystem restoration and protection efforts.