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Sustainability of Seal Tourism in the Ythan Estuary

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  Dr Sarah Marley  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) have shown an increasing population trend across the UK since the 1960s, leading to growing overlap between seal occurrence and human activities. In the UK, long-term monitoring of seals is important for meeting various conservation legislation and management requirements. However, in a more applied sense, monitoring is also important for the mitigation of mounting anthropogenic threats in the form of fisheries bycatch, vessel traffic, marine pollution, renewable energy, and tourism activities. Understanding seal abundance, behaviour, and habitat-use at a national, regional, and local level is necessary to support effective management and conservation at a range of scales.

The Ythan Estuary in Aberdeenshire is home to a recently-established grey seal haul-out. Believed to be the fastest-growing seal haul-out in mainland Scotland, over 5,000 animals have been counted at this site, representing ~26% of grey seals in the East Coast of Scotland Seal Management Area.

However, this site is also growing in popularity with tourists. Since the appearance of the seal-watching point in 2008, this area has become a hotspot for nature-based recreational activities, with over 63,000 visitors in 2020 alone. Concerns are frequently raised about the potential for seals to be disturbed by visitors and past incidents have resulted in hundreds of seals stampeding into the water. Such events have received considerable public interest and news coverage.

In 2017, the Scottish Government designated the Ythan Estuary as a seal haul-out site to provide additional protection for the seals from harassment. Other management interventions have tried to mitigate disturbance (e.g. fencing, signage), with varying levels of success. Discussions are currently underway about creating additional viewing platforms and a visitor centre to help with public education and visitor management.

Yet, despite growing seal numbers at this site and on-going concerns over the impact of human disturbance, relatively little is known about the Ythan Estuary seals. There is a need to better understand how both seals and people are using this site to inform effective management.

This project aims to examine the sustainability of seal tourism in the Ythan Estuary. This will be achieved by: (i) determining seal haul-out patterns and environmental drivers, (ii) quantifying disturbance events, (iii) investigating the socio-economics of current and future seal tourism, and (iv) exploring potential mitigation scenarios for reducing seal disturbance.

Prospective students should have relevant fieldwork experience, strong data analysis skills, and be able to liaise confidently and sensitively with rural stakeholders.


Application instructions can be found on the SRUC website- PhD opportunities | SRUC

  1. Download and complete the Equal opportunities survey and note the completion reference
  2. Download and complete the SRUC Application form
  3. Download the Academic Reference Request and send to two referees requesting they submit to [Email Address Removed] by the closing date.

Send your application including the following to [Email Address Removed]:

  • Completed Application form quoting REF SRUC/SM
  • Academic Qualifications
  • English Language Qualification (if applicable)

Unfortunately, due to workload constraints, we cannot consider incomplete applications. Please ensure your application is complete by Thursday 5th January 2023.

Funding Notes

This 3.5 year PhD studentship is open to UK and international students, providing funding to cover UKRI level stipend and UK level tuition fees.

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Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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