A sanctuary on the Scottish island of Shetland is fighting to save hundreds of seals as pollution takes its toll on the animals’ population.
Many seals brought to the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary were sick and emaciated from ingesting contaminated food and seawater, while others had severe neck wounds from entanglement by plastic straps or fishing nets.
There are several species of seals found in Shetland, including the grey seal and the common or harbour seal. Both species are protected under United Kingdom (UK) law.
Hillswick, a village on the north coast of the main island, is home to the sanctuary. According to Pete and Jan Bevington, who run the facility, climate change impacts have been linked to the increased release of hazardous chemicals that pollute the seals’ natural habitat.
Seals ingest the chemicals by consuming shellfish and fish that have accumulated polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). By destroying and disposing of industrial plants and old equipment, these banned chemicals still find their way into the marine environment and weaken the immune systems of seals, making them more vulnerable to infections and diseases.
“It used to be a lot easier to look after seals,” the 70-year-old Pete told news agency AFP. “They came in bigger, they came in stronger, they came in more resilient. Now it’s much harder work to keep them alive. We’re losing more than we used to.”
The sanctuary also reports a rise in the number of seals with entanglement wounds caused by plastic straps around their necks. Pete said the seals can’t free themselves when plastic gets around their neck. “The seal grows, but the plastic doesn’t. You see more and more seals with neck wounds here.”
The growing number of orcas from Iceland have also been causing trouble for seal populations in Shetland. According to Pete, orcas are turning up in greater numbers, possibly because they are struggling to find food in their usual habitats.
The sanctuary has rehabilitated hundreds of animals since it was founded in 1987. A network of trained volunteers around the archipelago help Pete and Jan rescue seals and otters. “We rehydrate them, we keep them warm, we let them rest, and then we feed them up,” Pete said.
While Pete and Jan admit to becoming attached to some of their rescues, their job is to undo the harm done by man and then return the animals to their natural environment.