Pathological examination of stranded marine mammals provides information on the causes of mortality in their populations. Patterns of stranding and causes of death of dead-stranded seals on the Dutch coast were analyzed over a 30-year period (1979-2008). Stranding data (n=1,286) and post-mortem data (n=379) from common seals (Phoca vitulina) and grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) found dead, or that died before admission to rehabilitation, were obtained from the Seal Rehabilitation and Research Centre database. Data for the years 1988 and 2002, when mass mortality occurred due to phocine distemper virus epidemics, were excluded. Common seal stranding increased from one to nearly 100 per year over this period. This coincides with the increase in the number of common seals in Dutch waters over recent decades. Grey seal stranding increased gradually from one to about 40 per year over the period, reflecting recolonization of Dutch waters by this species. For both species, the trend in stranding of dead seals was found to be in line with that of seals observed in Dutch waters during aerial surveys and did not provide any indications of a relative change in the stranding rate of dead seals. The total monthly stranding rates peaked at more than 120 in June and July for common seals and at nearly 60 in January for grey seals. This coincides with the pupping periods of the two species. Besides phocine distemper, the most common causes of death in investigated common seals (n=286) were by-catch (confirmed and inferred) (19%), pup starvation (7%), intestinal volvulus (7%) and parasitic bronchopneumonia (6%). The most common causes of death in investigated grey seals (n=93) were by-catch (confirmed and inferred) (15%), pup starvation (11%) and trauma (5%). The relative occurrence of by-catch significantly decreased over time for grey seals, but not for common seals. Common seals were affected by infectious disease significantly more often than grey seals, mainly because of a higher occurrence of parasitic pneumonia. Phocine distemper caused mass mortalities among common seals, but not among grey seals. These findings in dead-stranded seals differ in part from those reported elsewhere in live-stranded seals, for which pup starvation and parasitic bronchopneumonia were the main causes of stranding. A substantial proportion of seals in Dutch waters die from causes related to human activity. Continued monitoring of stranding patterns and causes of death is warranted for early detection of changes and the possibility of taking timely management actions.

Common seal, Grey seal, Pathology, Stranding,
Journal of Comparative Pathology
Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam

Osinga, N, Shahi Ferdous, M.M, Morick, D, García Hartmann, M, Ulloa, J.A, Vedder, E.J, … Kuiken, T. (2012). Patterns of Stranding and Mortality in Common Seals (Phoca vitulina) and Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus) in The Netherlands between 1979 and 2008. Journal of Comparative Pathology, 147(4), 550–565. doi:10.1016/j.jcpa.2012.04.001