Harp seal body condition and trophic interactions with prey in Norwegian high Arctic waters in early autumn
Peer reviewed, Journal article
MetadataShow full item record
In September 2016, a marine ecosystem survey covered all trophic levels from phytoplankton to seals in the Arctic Ocean to the west and north of Svalbard. At the ice edge, 26 harp seals were sampled to assess whether recent environmental changes had affected their diets and body condition by comparing our current results with previous investigations conducted 2–3 decades ago in the northern Barents Sea, when the ice edge was located much further south. Our results suggest that the body condition was slightly but significantly lower for one year and older seals in 2016 compared with seals sampled in the early 1990s. Furthermore, we confirmed previous findings that polar cod (Boreogadus saida) and the pelagic hyperiid amphipod Themisto libellula still dominate the seal diet. One consequence of current ice edge localisation north of Svalbard is that the water depth underneath is now 500 m and deeper, which probably explains the absence of bottom associated species, and the presence of species such as Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and blue whiting (Micromesistius poutassou) as alternative species in addition to polar cod and T. libellula in the seal diets. Stable isotope data also suggest possible long-term importance in the seal diet of T. libellula and of low trophic level benthopelagic prey such as the squid Gonatus fabricii over mid-trophic level pelagic fishes, but with a strong component of small, benthopelagic fish such as blue whiting. The long-term importance of pelagic crustaceans was also suggested from the fatty acid analyses. Assessment of the abundance of prey showed that T. libellula was by far the most abundant prey species in the upper water layers, followed by krill (mainly Thysanoessa inermis), Atlantic cod and polar cod. Prey-preference analyses indicated that polar cod was the most preferred prey species for the seals.