A £10,000 reward has been offered for information on the illegal shooting of seals after it emerged Police Scotland and the National Wildlife Crime Unit were passed intelligence reports about a number of killings.
The bounty has been offered by two animal rights groups. One said the “slaughter of seals is stomach churning” and should put the public off buying farmed fish.
The farmed salmon industry said in reply it takes animal welfare extremely seriously, pointing out that firms have been investing in “non-lethal deterrents” for years.
Conflicts between seals and the salmon farming industry are on-going because seals attempt to get into farm cages in lochs to eat salmon. Fish farms have used nets, scarers and guns to stop them.
But the Scottish Government stopped granting licences to shoot seals to protect farmed salmon on 1 February 2021. The move was to save Scotland’s £180m business exporting salmon to the US, which is banning imports from countries that allow seals to be killed to protect fisheries.
The new figures on police investigations emerged after campaign group Scottish Salmon Watch (SSW) submitted a freedom of information (FoI) request to the Scottish Government asking for information on the illegal killing of seals. SSW also asked for information on breaches of seal licences by salmon farmers since 1 January 2018.
The Scottish Government’s reply revealed its fisheries agency Marine Scotland passed intelligence reports on seal killings to Police Scotland and the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) six times. NWCU supports police forces across the UK.
From codes provided by the Scottish Government in its reply, SSW said incidents investigated included four seals killed in Basta Voe in August 2018. Police Scotland told The Ferret it had been made aware of fines given but that no further police action was required.
Police Scotland said it had also been informed about two dead seals recovered from Crosskirk Bay, Thurso on 13 May, 2019 and that “relevant advice was given to the agency who contacted police”.
The reply to SSW’s FoI request also revealed that firms were late in reporting seal shootings 64 times between 1 January 2018 and 11 February 2021.
A licensee must submit a report within 10 days at the end of each quarterly period. If no seals have been killed a nil return must be submitted.
Illegal seal killing
SSW has now matched a £5,000 reward offered by Animal Concern in February 2021 for information leading to a successful prosecution of a salmon farmer for the killing of seals. Both campaign groups fear illegal activity may continue, despite the ban.
The director of SSW, Don Staniford, hopes that the £10,000 reward will act as a deterrent to “Scottish salmon’s lethal nature”.
He said: “Even with a new law making the killing of seals illegal from 1 February this year it is clear that seals will continue to die cruel deaths on salmon farms, whether trapped inside nets or shot without a licence.
“Sea cage salmon farms are a welfare nightmare and need to get out of the way of marine mammals as well as migrating wild fish.”
Staniford urged Police Scotland to police salmon farms around the Highlands and Islands to “catch the criminals killing Scotland’s iconic seals”. He added: “Seal-friendly Scottish salmon simply does not exist.”
John Robins of the charity Animal Concern claimed these latest revelations prove the government seal shooting licensing scheme “did little or nothing to protect seals”.
He told The Ferret: “It was never policed properly or properly enforced. What is shocking is that the authorities actually knew about incidents where seals were killed illegally yet no-one was prosecuted.
Robins called for an investigation into how the intelligence reports were handled and said: “Clear statements must be forthcoming to explain why it was decided not to prosecute and not to make it public that seals were being killed illegally. Now that the reward has been doubled to £10,000 perhaps we will get the evidence needed to bring a successful prosecution.”
In reply a spokesperson for the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation said: “Scotland’s salmon farmers take animal welfare incredibly seriously. That is why our members have been investing in non-lethal deterrents for many years, including anti-predator netting, to protect both the welfare of their fish and the welfare of the wildlife in the marine environment we all share.”
Constable Dan Sutherland, wildlife crime liaison officer for Highlands and Islands division, said: “We work in partnership with a number of agencies to ensure the protection of wildlife and the environment.
“Anyone with concerns about wildlife crime in their area should contact their local police office through 101.”
Changes to the Marine Scotland Act 2010 came into force on 1 February 2021 and removed two reasons for which licences to kill seals could be granted – protecting the health and welfare of farmed fish and preventing serious damage to fisheries and fish farms.
Part six of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 seeks to balance seal conservation with other pressures and requirements, such as species conservation.
The Ferret reported last year the number of seals shot by the fish farming industry doubled ahead of the ban, prompting fears of a “killing spree”.
Official figures revealed salmon farmers killed 31 seals in the first three months of 2020, compared to 15 in the same period in 2019.
Photo thanks to iStock and Ian Dyball