A £5,000 reward has been offered by an animal welfare charity concerned that fish farms may continue to shoot seals despite the introduction of a new ban.
Shooting seals is now illegal in Scotland but Animal Concern has promised a reward for information leading to the first successful prosecution under new legal protection for seals.
The charity fears that under Covid-19 restrictions fewer people are likely to see what is happening around salmon cages at fish farms, especially in remote areas.
It says farm workers and local people may be afraid to speak out for “fear of reprisals” but is encouraging anyone witnessing seals being shot to report any incidents.
In response the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO), which represents fish farming companies, said its members take animal welfare “incredibly seriously”.
The Scottish Government has banned seal shooting to save Scotland’s £180 million business exporting farmed salmon to the US.
Ministers were forced to act by a US animal welfare law that from 2022 will prevent the import of fish from countries which allow seals to be killed to protect fisheries.
The Scottish ban on seal shooting came into effect on 1 February 2021. This means that salmon farmers can no longer obtain a government licence to shoot seals.
Seals were shot under licence to prevent them from attacking salmon cages and eating the fish.
John Robins, secretary of Animal Concern, said anyone witnessing seals being shot can pass on information in “strict confidence”. The charity will “take whatever action we can to secure a prosecution”, he added.
If a successful conviction ensues the charity will “gladly pay” a £5,000 reward to the person who supplied the information.
Robins claimed that as most salmon farms are in remote areas “the shooting of seals was never monitored” adding this practice will “still not be policed” even though it is now illegal.
Robins said: “Scottish Government ministers and officials have bent over backwards to protect fish farmers and keep their persecution of wildlife and environmental damage out of the public eye.
He continued: “Shooting is no longer the cheap option for dealing with seals. Salmon farmers will now have to use some of their profits to create new jobs installing and maintaining the predator exclusion nets we have been asking them to use for the last thirty years. These are expensive but not as costly as a very heavy fine and/or five years in jail.”
A spokesperson from the SSPO 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.”
In June 2020 The Ferret reported that the number of seals shot by the fish farming industry had doubled ahead of the ban.
Official figures revealed that salmon farmers killed 31 seals in the first three months of 2020, compared to 15 in the same period in 2019.
The Scottish Government said: “The Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protection and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020 has amended the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 to remove two specific grounds for which Scottish Ministers can grant licences to kill or take seals.
“These are for the purpose of protecting the health and welfare of farmed fish and for preventing serious damage to fisheries and fish farms.
“The Act also increased the penalties associated with the offence of killing, injuring or taking a live seal (intentionally or recklessly) in line with the most serious wildlife offences. Those found guilty of breaking the new laws could face a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
“We would urge anyone with any information about wildlife crime to contact the police.”
This story was updated at 09.42 on 3 February 2021 to add a statement by the Scottish Government.
Photo thanks to hpboerman.