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Seal Persecution in Scotland

Under Part 6 of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 The Scottish Government issues licences to shoot around 1000 seals a year in Scotland. The figure of circa 1000 is gauged not to have a detrimental effect on the overall seal population. In 2014 licences were issued allowing the killing of 765 Grey Seals and 240 Common Seals. Despite this there is no seal cull in Scotland. In Scotland we don’t cull seals we “manage” them.

The people who are given licences to manage seals are salmon netsmen, salmon farmers and salmon angling organisations. Spot the running theme here? Humans persecute seals for eating salmon, one of their natural food sources. A salmon netter, salmon farmer or salmon river board requesting a license to shoot seals will not be visited by any Government official to see if they are using other methods to deter seals. They will not be monitored at any time when they are shooting seals. No-one will check on the accuracy of the number of seals they report as having shot.

Salmon are just one species of fish eaten by seals. Seals also eat eels, flounders and other fish which in turn would predate on salmon and salmon eggs. Nature has a knack of finding and maintaining a balance. Seals and salmon have co-existed successfully for hundreds of thousands of years.

Why do salmon farmers shoot seals? Wearing my Animal Concern hat I lobbied hard to have farmed fish recognised as sentient creatures under the Animal Health & Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. Fish are now protected under that Act and fish farmers have a legal duty to protect their stock from the attention of predators. This does not simply mean that farmers must stop predators attacking their fish they must stop predators getting close enough to cause their stock fear, alarm and stress. To do this you need to erect high strength, high tension predator exclusion nets far enough away from the cage nets holding the salmon to make sure seals do not get within sight of the fish.

The problem is that predator exclusion nets are expensive to buy and you have to employ divers to install them and regularly clean, re-tension and fully maintain them. You would think that the Scottish Government would welcome this increase in rural employment and insist that marine salmon farms fit and maintain humane predator exclusion nets. Sadly instead of doing the right thing the Scottish Government opted to do the wrong thing and issued licenses allowing salmon farmers to shoot seals.

This is of course much cheaper than using predator exclusion nets but it has a major flaw – it doesn’t work. To meet their legal obligation to keep predators away from their salmon the farmers would have to have someone on site 24/7 shooting any seal that came near the salmon cage nets. It is impossible to spot and shoot seals in the dead of night, during storms or in fog. The Scottish Government ignore those simple facts in their all too close relationship with the fish farming industry.

Scottish Government Ministers, including our current First Minister and our Minister for the Environment, act as international fishmongers hard-selling Scottish farmed salmon to China and the USA. This is despite the fact that Norwegian companies own 66 % of the floating factory fish farms which pollute our seas with chemicals, fish faeces and plagues of sealice. Our politicians regularly refer to salmon farming as “sustainable” despite the fact that it takes up to four tonnes of wild fish to produce the food pellets needed to feed one tonne of farmed salmon. We are in the ludicrous situation where imports of factory farmed salmon from Norway to Scotland have grown tenfold while Scottish produced salmon is sold to the USA and China.

Salmon netsmen intercept salmon and seatrout as the fish approach their home rivers. They catch and kill thousands of wild salmon every year, stopping them getting back upstream to breed. Some salmon netters are trialling the use of special nets and acoustic scarers to stop seals pinching salmon out of their nets. Again the Government should intervene here. Wild salmon and seatrout are becoming scarce and the best way to help these species would be to close down the netting stations thus allowing many more fish to return to breed. Instead of doing this the Government give salmon netsmen licences to kill hundreds of seals every year.

Some salmon angling organisations also obtain Government licences to shoot seals (and sawbill ducks). You would think that sports fishermen who catch fish for fun would be sporting enough to recognise that seals kill fish for food and should have first choice instead of being persecuted and killed for doing what they do naturally to survive. I reckon most do. They probably also know that seals at river mouths are just as likely to be eating eels and other fish which predate on salmon eggs, ova and parr.

It’s mainly the landowners and owners of the fishing rights who get licenses to kill seals. Every salmon and seatrout caught on “their” stretch of river helps increase the financial value of the fishing rights. If the Government has any sense they will stop issuing seal shooting licences to salmon river boards and bring in a national catch and release law limiting the number of fish anglers can kill.

Another aspect of seal shooting which the Government ignore but are well aware of is the adverse effect this has on tourism. A few years ago the Government brought, at great expense, a Scottish scientist working in Australia to give a short presentation to a seal management conference in Inverness. His Government sponsored advice was along the lines of “shoot the seals when there are few people around and get the bodies off the beach before anyone sees them”. The shooters are not always good at this. In 2012 I was contacted by two sets of holidaymakers who independently had witnessed seal shooting incidents at salmon nets in Gamrie Bay on the Moray Firth. One couple cut their holiday short by four days and went home. Both vowed never to holiday in the area again.

On the West Coast wildlife tour boat operators have monitored dwindling numbers of seals in areas with fish farms. For several days one skipper had to explain to his customers that the injured seal hauled out on the rocks had not been fighting with other seals. It had been shot in the head by a fish farmer and was slowly bleeding to death.

To sum up. There is no seal cull in Scotland. There is no seal hunt in Scotland. Instead salmon farmers, salmon netters and salmon angling authorities “manage” seals by using high powered rifles to shoot and kill them. There’s not even a close season. Heavily pregnant seals have been seen to abort their pups after being shot. Lactating mothers can be shot, leaving their pups to suffer a slow and lingering death from starvation.

In reality what we have in Scotland is a Government sanctioned unmonitored, unregulated and unnecessary slaughter of seals. When you buy Scottish wild or factory farmed salmon, including RSPCA Freedom Food endorsed farmed salmon, you are literally paying for bullets to kill seals.

John F. Robins, Secretary to the Save Our Seals Fund and Animal Concern. April 2014.


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