Stop Killing Endangered Seals With Ship Propellers

Target: Linda Rosborough, Marine Scotland

Goal: Prevent the loss of more harbor seals by regulating propeller use

Large numbers of endangered harbor seals off Scotland’s coasts are being found dead with cut and bruised bodies. These distinctive corkscrew-like lacerations are inflicted by the propellers of passing ships. Other marine creatures such as the more common grey seals and porpoises are also being found with similar injuries.

Researchers have linked a particular type of popular propeller to the deaths. The ducted propeller can trap animals between itself and its cover, continually scraping the animals until they manage to escape. Those that do not immediately die of trauma are left weak, injured, and vulnerable to predators or weather conditions.

Eighty seals and four porpoises have been confirmed as corkscrew cases over the past five years. The majority of the seals found were adult females, and some of those had been pregnant. Scientists say that the eighty seals that have been found on shore represent only a small fraction of the total numbers of animals dying in this fashion. Most will be eaten by predators or lost at sea, suggesting that the issue is much worse than it appears.

In some areas, the harbor seal population has declined by up to 90%. These critically low numbers mean that any death is a serious issue, particularly the deaths of females within breeding age. Further population loss will mean an even smaller chance for this struggling population to recover.

To ensure that these creatures will be around for many generations to come, immediate action is required by the Scottish government. Your signature will demand that new marine enterprises be prohibited from operating vessels with ducted propellers, and that existing enterprises restrict the use of these propellers while close to seal habitats.


Dear Linda Rosborough,

The amount of mutilated harbor seals being found washed up onto Scotland’s shores is alarming. The majority of these are adult females, many pregnant. These losses have a detrimental impact on an already endangered population.

The animals are being found dead with deep cuts encircling their bodies in a corkscrew pattern. These lacerations have been linked to ducted ship propellers, in which seals and porpoises become trapped. These propellers, preferred by the marine shipping industry, have many practical and safe alternatives.

In five years, eighty seals and four porpoises have been found with corkscrew wounds. Considering the immense likelihood of the lifeless bodies to sink or be scavenged at sea, it is estimated that the findings on-shore are only a small percentage of actual losses.

The harbor seal is considered endangered and has seen a population decline of up to 90% in some parts of Scotland. It is critical that these creatures receive expedited protection in order to increase the chances of recovery.

I ask that the use of ducted propellers be banned to new marine ventures. I ask that the ducted propeller’s use by existing operations be disallowed near seal habitats. I ask that the Scottish government implement plans to have the country’s shipping industry switch over to alternatives that are more friendly to the local marine life.


[Your Name Here]

Photo Credit: Andreas Trepte via Creative Commons

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One Comment

  1. In Dec. 2013 I wrote directly to ‘Marine Scotland’ about this matter, and they politely responded as follows:
    “Re: Killing of Seals With Ship Propellers
    Thank you for your email of 14 December 2013 concerning the above.
    Marine Scotland is currently supporting a major research project, which is being taken forward by the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews University. It is actively monitoring these events (and the porpoise cases) and investigating the possible causes and any potential mitigation. This has included publishing updates on such events and on progress with the research.

    We are therefore fully aware of the possible impact of these events and are actively engaged in the process of establishing the precise cause and exploring potential mitigation options.

    This research has still to confirm conclusively exactly what type of propulsion system is responsible for these incidents and, even more importantly, the specific circumstances in which they arise. The unusually specific nature of these incidents with time of year and the species and sex of animals and individual behaviour all interacting to produce these detrimental events. The evidence to date suggests that these unusual mortalities are not simply the product of the coincidence of seals and ships equipped with ducted propellers but that some other unknown factor is involved and this is what is under investigation. The evidence, therefore, remains equivocal in a number of ways and until these uncertainties can be resolved it is not possible to provide a definitive solution.
    The issues set out in your e-mail have all been discussed but until we know the precise type of propeller and the specific causes of these unusual injuries it is difficult to be specific about possible monitoring and mitigation.

    The Scottish Government will consider possible mitigation measures once researchers have confirmed the specific circumstances of these unusual seal mortalities. In the meantime, we are actively discussing this issue with the UK Chamber of Shipping and others to ensure that they are aware of the situation and that action may be taken in future.
    I hope that this is helpful.”

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