Examination of the foraging habits of Pacific harbor seal (Phoca vitulina richardsi) to describe their use of the Umpqua River, Oregon, and their predation on salmonids


Orr, Anthony J., Adria S. Banks, Steve Mellman, Harriet R. Huber, Robert L. DeLong, and Robin F. Brown
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The increase in harbor seal (Phoca vitulina richardsi) abundance, concurrent with the decrease in salmonid (Oncorhynchus spp.) and other fish stocks, raises concerns about the potential negative impact of seals on fish populations. Although harbor seals are found in rivers and estuaries, their presence is not necessarily indicative of exclusive or predominant feeding in these systems. We examined the diet of harbor seals in the Umpqua River, Oregon, during 1997 and 1998 to indirectly assess whether or not they were feeding in the river. Fish otoliths and other skeletal structures were recovered from 651 scats and used to identify seal prey. The use of all diagnostic prey structures, rather than just otoliths, increased our estimates of the number of taxa, the minimum number of individuals and percent frequency of occurrence (%FO) of prey consumed. The %FO indicated that the most common prey were pleuronectids, Pacific hake (Merluccius productus), Pacific staghorn sculpin (Leptocottus armatus), osmerids, and shiner surfperch (Cymatogaster aggregata). The majority (76%) of prey were fish that inhabit marine waters exclusively and fish found in marine and estuarine areas (e.g. anadromous spp.) which would indicate that seals forage predominantly at sea and use the estuary for resting and opportunistic feeding. Salmonid remains were encountered in 39 samples (6%); two samples contained identifiable otoliths, which were determined to be from chinook salmon (O. tshawytscha). Because of the complex salmonid composition in the Umpqua River, we used molecular genetic techniques on salmonid bones retrieved from scat to discern species that were rare from those that were abundant. Of the 37 scats with salmonid bones but no otoliths, bones were identified genetically as chinook or coho (O. kisutch) salmon, or steelhead trout (O. mykiss) in 90% of the samples.