Fresh concerns have been raised about the impact of marine litter on wildlife after a distressed seal was discovered entangled in a fishing net.
The animal was seen writhing in pain at the Ythan Estuary in Aberdeenshire, with its upper torso entwined in the discarded rope.
Normally, volunteers from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) would converge around the seal and humanely remove the netting.
But people are now prohibited from venturing into that part of the Forvie Nature Reserve until mid-September as it is breeding season for its bird population.
Volunteers fear the creature may have been facing a drawn-out, painful death.
There are around 1,000 grey seals at the colony at the mouth of the River Ythan, near Newburgh.
With hundreds of pups born in December and January, seals at the estuary make up around 25% of Scotland’s east coast population, making it one of the best places in the country to watch the charismatic creatures.
Lee Watson, who founded Ythan Seal Watch four years ago, has now called on nature lovers who visit the spot to take photographs to update them on the animal’s condition whenever they can.
Mr Watson said: “Seals are foragers, and naturally inquisitive, so they spend a lot of time foraging on the seabed and that’s how they can get tangled up.
“We usually have a system of allowing the seals to wrap themselves in a large net while we remove any litter from them in as relaxing a way as we can.
“But now we can’t intervene as that part of the reserve is off-limits until September, we can’t risk disturbing the protected species of birds.
“People get such good pictures of the seals when visiting that we are now asking them to send us any of this particular seal which they may get, so that we can monitor its condition.
“If the seal is still growing then rope can end up cutting through its blubber and into the skin.”
But Mr Watson said the “biggest risk” facing this animal would be for the netting to get tangled on rocks while it is underwater.
Last week, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) published shocking images of two red stags that died after becoming entangled in discarded rope on a beach on the island of Rum.
SNH’s Rum reserve manager Lesley Watt described marine litter as “a huge international problem”.
Kate Forbes MSP said: “It is heart-breaking to see wildlife being hurt and killed by our thoughtless waste and litter.”
Yesterday, the seal remained entangled.
Mr Watson said: “It looks quite tight so it is unlikely to come off naturally. We have no idea how long it has been like this for as Sunday was the first sighting.
“What will happen to the seal depends on a few things. It may die through the net snagging under water preventing the seal from reaching the surface to breath.
“If the seal grows more and the entanglement tightens it may suffer from a drawn out strangulation, eventually effecting its ability to eat or the net cutting through to the skin as it grows leading to infected wounds.
“We may never see it again.”