Stop the seal slaughter on Britain's shores!

Swimming seal at Barrel of Butter, Scapa Flow, Scotland. Photo: Dafydd Thomas via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Swimming seal at Barrel of Butter, Scapa Flow, Scotland. Photo: Dafydd Thomas via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
A 'summer of protest' is brewing as campaigners vow to protect seals from shooting by salmon farmers in Scotland and managers of wild salmon fisheries, writes Dominic Dyer. The RSPCA's 'Freedom Food' system is driving animal welfare advances on salmon farms - now the model must be extended to wild salmon.
There is no closed season for seal shooting, which can result in heavily pregnant seals and lactating mothers being shot, leaving their pups to suffer a slow painful death from starvation.

"Outrage as hundreds of seals are secretly slaughtered by Britain's fish farming industry" was the front page headline in the Daily Mirror on the 20th April this year.

The annual commercial seal cull in Canada is rightly the subject of huge international concern, but it will come as a nasty shock to many people that hundreds of seals are also shot every year along Britain's coastline, albeit for other reasons.

According to Scottish government data, 205 seals were legally killed under license in 2014 in Scotland; 80 to protect marine fish farms and 125 to protect wild fisheries.

However the true numbers killed across the UK could be far higher, according to wildlife campaigners, since the Scottish government's figures relate only to those kills reported under the licensing scheme, and kills are not recorded for the rest of the UK.

Back in 1978, the Labour Government of Prime Minister Jim Callaghan planned a massive seal cull in Scotland. Large numbers of marksmen were brought in from Norway to undertake the cull and over 6,000 seals around Orkney were put on the target list. This resulted in a huge public outcry and following high profile campaigns from Greenpeace and other environmental groups it was called off.

Since this time, the number of grey seals is estimated to have doubled to around 112,000 (three quarters of the global population), there are also thought to be around 37,000 common or harbour seals around the UK coastline.

However common seal numbers have plummeted by over a third in the last decade, with ecological changes and a shortage of wild fish thought to be key factors contributing to the decline.

Seals persecuted to protect salmon?

Adult seals eat a varied diet of fish and shellfish and do not only target prime fish stocks such as salmon and cod. Many fisherman and fish farmers claim they regularly raid their nets and could cause long term decline in fish stocks, but this is a highly controversial and a hotly disputed claim.

The Scottish salmon farming industry produces over 155,000 tonnes of fish a year and serves a critical economic need across the highlands and islands of Scotland. It employs thousands of people and generated exports valued in excess of £500 million in 2014.

The wild salmon netting industry and salmon angling sectors also contribute a further £100 million to the Scottish economy and remain important employers and revenue generators in rural communities.

Few question the importance of these sectors to the Scottish economy, but concerns remain that seals are being persecuted to protect them.

In response, the RSPCA has been working closely with industry over the last decade to improve animal welfare standards for salmon and trout under it Freedom Foods Scheme. Today 90% of farmed Scottish salmon are produced to the Freedom Foods standard - amounting to over 240 million fish in 2014.

There is no closed season for seal shooting, which can result in heavily pregnant seals and lactating mothers being shot, leaving their pups to suffer a slow painful death from starvation.

Non-lethal protection the first option

The RSPCA welfare standards place a heavy emphasis on the need for management methods aimed at preventing stock predation, such as acoustic devices to deter seals, nets that are weighted to prevent seal incursion and good management techniques, such as the speedy removal of dead fish.

Only where other methods have demonstrably failed to prevent predation can seals be shot under the standards, and the farmers are required to justify any such incidents to Freedom Foods on a case by case basis.

However all these preventative measures do have limitations. In some areas acoustic devices can only be used sparingly due to their potential negative impact on local cetacean populations. Anti-seal nets are also limited by currents and tides and can lead to the drowning of sea birds, dolphins and seals.

And of course the RSCPCA Freedom Foods standards only apply to salmon aquaculture facilities, and not to capture fisheries.

In Scotland seal-shooting now requires a licence, but ...

The Scottish Government has significantly increased the protection for seals with the introduction of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, which for the first time, makes it an offence to shoot seals without a licence at any time, unless to alleviate suffering.

There has reportedly been a 50% decline in the number of seals being shot around the Scottish coast, since the Act and new licensing system came into force. However the Scottish Government continues to issue licences to shoot seals to protect fish stocks and these are given to salmon farmers, salmon nets men and salmon angling organisations.

A total of 53 licenses were issued in 2014 alone, permitting the killing of over 1,000 individual seals (albeit that according to license returns, 205 were actually shot).

The licence holders are not monitored by any Government official when they are shooting seals and many wildlife protection campaigners question the accuracy of the license return figures published by the Government.

There is also no closed season for seal shooting, which can result in heavily pregnant seals being shot. Lactating mothers can also be shot, leaving their pups to suffer a slow painful death from starvation.

Shooting seals may not be the cheapest option after all

Many wildlife campaigners also claim that salmon farms are often unwilling to deploy effective predator exclusion methods in view of the expense - shooting seals, they say, is cheaper.

The Scottish Government has also found itself at a centre of a debate over freedom of information as it seeks to prevent the disclosure of information detailing where seals have been killed, in view of what it believes is a threat to the personal safety of the facility managers and marksmen involved from direct action protestors.

Another aspect of seal shooting which is causing growing concern is its impact on tourism. Marksmen will generally kill seals in isolated areas away from the public eye, but in some cases shot seals are turning up on Scotland's beautiful beaches.

And that could become a serious problem for Scotland's reputation as a haven for wildlife - which attracts millions of tourists every year from across the UK and around the world.

As public awareness and concern grows, direct action groups such as Sea Shepherd and the Hunt Saboteurs Association are taking to the shores of Scotland in an attempt to stop the shooting of seals by intervening between the marksmen and the animals.

This summer is likely to see a number of protests across Scotland against the shooting of seals and increased media interest as a result of the interventions of activists.

Applying the RSPCA approach to wild salmon fisheries

Ultimately it might be our willingness to pay more for seal friendly products that will be the key driver in bringing an end to the shooting of seals. RSPCA Freedom Foods has proved that consumers are willing to pay more for meat and fish products with higher animal welfare standards.

Freedom Foods certification has significantly reduced the number of seals shot by salmon farms and although more needs to done to reduce this figure further, the RSPCA deserves credit for its work with the salmon farming industry and food retail sector in this area.

The key challenge going forward will be to develop a similar animal welfare certification scheme aimed at also bringing about significant reductions in the number of seals shot by salmon netters and angling organisations.

This in my view would be the best outcome to protect both the future of the Scottish salmon farming, fishing and angling industry and our precious seals.



Dominic Dyer is Policy Advisor at the Born Free Foundation, which recently merged with Care for the Wild.

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