Estimating the risks of exposure to harmful algal toxins among Scottish harbour seals

Ailsa J. Hall, Joanna L. Kershaw, Shaun Fraser, Keith Davidson, Stephanie Rowland-Pilgrim, Andrew D. Turner, Bernie McConnell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Harmful algal bloom (HAB) toxins consumed by marine predators through fish prey can be lethal but studies on the resulting population consequences are lacking. Over the past approximately 20 years there have been large regional declines in some harbour seal populations around Scotland. Analyses of excreta (faeces and urine from live and dead seals and faecal samples from seal haulout sites) suggest widespread exposure to toxins through the ingestion of contaminated prey. A risk assessment model, incorporating concentrations of the two major HAB toxins found in seal prey around Scotland (domoic acid (DA), and saxitoxins (STX)), the seasonal persistence of the toxins in the fish and the foraging patterns of harbour seals were used to estimate the proportion of adults and juveniles likely to have ingested doses above various estimated toxicity thresholds. The results were highly dependent on toxin type, persistence, and foraging regime as well as age class, all of which affected the proportion of exposed animals exceeding toxicity thresholds. In this preliminary model STX exposure was unlikely to result in mortalities. Modelled DA exposure resulted in doses above an estimated lethal threshold of 1900 µg/kg body mass affecting up to 3.8 % of exposed juveniles and 5.3 % of exposed adults. Given the uncertainty in the model parameters and the limitations of the data these conclusions should be treated with caution, but they indicate that DA remains a potential factor involved in the regional declines of harbour seals. Similar risks may be experienced by other top predators, including small cetaceans and seabirds that feed on similar prey in Scottish waters.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102653
JournalHarmful Algae
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jun 2024


  • Biotoxin
  • Domoic acid
  • Paralytic shellfish toxins
  • Phoca vitulina
  • Risk assessment
  • Saxitoxins


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