Harp seal foraging behaviour during summer around Svalbard in the northern Barents Sea: diet composition and the selection of prey
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The harp seal Pagophilus groenlandicus is a major high trophic level predator in the Barents Sea, and to better understand their function in the Barents Sea ecosystem, we need to understand their foraging behaviour during their most intensive feeding period. We analysed the diet composition and prey preference of 184 harp seals and 94 faeces samples, sampled in the northern Barents Sea (around Svalbard) during the period May–August in 1996, 1997, and 2004–2006. Concurrent with the sampling of seals, prey availability was assessed in one area in 1996 and 1997 and in two areas in 2006 using standard acoustic methods. Our study showed that harp seal diet composition varied significantly both in time (year) and space, and that their diets appeared to be size dependent. Both subadult (<150 cm) and adult seals were associated with pelagic crustaceans (particularly krill), whereas primarily adult seals were associated with fish (capelin, gadoids and flatfish). Krill was the most important prey group (63 %) followed by polar cod (16 %) and other fish species (10 %). The prey preference of harp seals varied in time and space; polar cod was often preferred by the seals whereas krill was commonly consumed in lower proportion than observed in the survey area. Gadoids and capelin had either been exploited in the same or less proportion as observed in the survey sea. This study emphasises the ecological significance of krill as prime food for harp seals during their intensive feeding period in summer.