Orkney seal killing may have broken the law

The killing of a seal at an Orkney fish farm was not a “proportional and justifiable response” and may have breached the law, according to a report seen by The Ferret.

The seal was shot in the face last October at Wyre Marine Farm, Scapa Flow, which is run by Scottish Sea Farms (SSF), a company which farms salmon.

Killing a seal with a gun to protect farmed salmon in Scotland has been illegal since February 2021, after the Scottish Government stopped granting licences to people to shoot them. But there are some exemptions under the law which allow seals to be killed humanely in order to “alleviate suffering”.

SSF told The Ferret it had no choice but to “humanely euthanise” the seal after it became trapped in a pen. Animal welfare campaigners said more could have been done to save the seal and it was “scandalous that salmon farmers are still killing seals”. They have called for an investigation.

Seals were previously shot by licensed farmers to prevent them breaking into salmon pens and eating the fish, but killing them proved controversial.

Ministers stopped granting licences for the shooting of seals due to fears the US would stop importing Scottish salmon. America is banning imports from countries that allow seals to be killed to protect fisheries. Scotland’s salmon exports to the US are worth nearly £200m each year.

The fish farming industry insists it takes animal welfare seriously and has been investing in non-lethal deterrents for seals “for years”. 

The Orkney seal killing was revealed in a reply by the Scottish Government to a freedom of information (FOI) request by the anti-fish farm campaigner, Don Staniford. The government response revealed that a seal was shot and killed by a licensed marksman on 14 October 2022.

This was a healthy seal whose fate was decided by the repeated failed human attempts to release it.

Freddy Bowen-Bate, Animal Concern

The documents show that on 17 October, 2022, SSF advised the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS) that a seal had been shot. 

SSF wrote: “In accordance with Section 108 of the Marine Scotland Act 2010, I hereby notify that at approximately 15:45 hours on 14 October 2022, a qualified holder of a firearms licence euthanized a seal at Wyre Marine Farm, Orkney. This action was undertaken in the presence of an independent qualified veterinarian and an action taken to alleviate the suffering of the grey seal.”

A post mortem was subsequently conducted on the seal at Glasgow University by SMASS. Its report revealed a bullet entered the seal under its right eye. SMASS noted that from a welfare aspect, the animal was killed with a single shot and “died almost instantaneously”. 

However, based on a review of the evidence and discussions with St Andrews University’s Sea Mammal Research Unit, and the “marine mammal community” – SMASS concluded it was “difficult to support the conclusion that this animal was suffering to the extent that euthanasia was a proportional and justifiable response”.

The author of SMASS’s report wrote: “My opinion, therefore, is that the actions followed by Scottish Sea Farms do not fall under the exemptions listed under section 108 of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. It appears that there were several opportunities missed to engage the wider marine mammal community in the management of this event.”

The seal appeared to be in “excellent body condition” with no underlying disease, SMASS said, and there was evidence of recent feeding. It added: “There was no evidence the animal had been suffering whilst in the seal pen. It appeared to be feeding well and showed no evidence of stress or disease.” 

The seal had entered the pen on 8 October, and euthanasia was made six days later. SMASS said it did not appear that SSF attempted to seek advice during this time from rescue groups or those experienced in seal behaviour. 

“It was not explained why a temporary haul out solution could not be securely fixed in the pen in such a way as it avoided damage to the pen infrastructure, SMASS said. “There was no video or photographic footage taken of the seal in the pen prior to euthanasia which could support the assertion the animal was suffering.” 

seal killing
Killing a seal with a gun to protect farmed salmon in Scotland has been illegal since February 2021. Image: iStock/PABimages

A request was made to Marine Scotland and SSF for details of any guidance or protocols for situations where seals are free swimming within fish farm pens, but this information was not available, SMASS added.

The FOI reply said that SSF notified the Scottish Government of the killing in an email on 14 October. The firm wrote: “This action was undertaken in the presence of an independent qualified veterinarian. The action was instructed by Scottish Sea Farms following receipt of independent (external company) veterinary advice that to alleviate the suffering of the seal the correct action to take was to euthanize the animal.”

The vet who attended the incident at Wyre Marin Farm also produced a report which said five seals entered a salmon pen at the fish farm through its netting.

Four seals later vacated the pen but one remained for six days, despite repeated attempts by SSF to remove the seal using “various methods”. These included the crew using “noise and the presence of boats, engines and divers to try and encourage the seal to leave the pen”. The vet noted that SSF had put “great effort into their attempts to release the seal”.

The vet discussed the situation with SSF and Marine Scotland and advised that the animal should be euthanized as it had been trapped in the pen for seven days. 

However, Freddy Bowen-Bate, secretary of campaign group Animal Concern, argued more could have been done, pointing out that section 108 of the Marine Scotland Act 2010 states that ending a seal’s life is only permissible to alleviate suffering if there is no “reasonable chance” of recovery.

He added: “We have long held a strong stance against the salmon farming industry – and cases like this are one of the many reasons why. An innocent, healthy seal, who had wandered into a fish pen with its group due to inadequate netting, ended up being trapped and ineffectually cajoled for a week before finally being shot in the face. This was a healthy seal whose fate was decided by the repeated failed human attempts to release it.”

Bowen-Bate added that Animal Concern will be pushing for a “thorough investigation”.

Those responsible for the slaughter of seals must be held to account.

Don Staniford, $camon $cotland

Don Staniford, director of $camon $cotland, claimed that the salmon farming industry and the Scottish Government have “blood on their hands over the killing of seals” in Scotland. “Those responsible for the slaughter of seals must be held to account – under the letter of law that means a five-year prison sentence and a whopping fine,” he added.

Anne Anderson, head of sustainability and development at Scottish Sea Farms, said that “every attempt was made to encourage the seal out of the pen to safety, but to no avail”. 

She added: “When, after six days, the seal began displaying signs of stress, including lack of appetite and movement, we sought the opinion of an independent vet who advised that the only course of action remaining was to humanely euthanise the animal – not the outcome anyone wanted but the right and proper thing to do to alleviate any further suffering.”

The Sea Mammal Research Unit told The Ferret it is “critical” to minimise the likelihood of seals gaining access to fish farm cages. Its statement added: “Although seals getting into fish cages is a rare occurrence, it unfortunately does happen. Thus, urgent work is required to identify and develop safe ways to release seals from fish cages to alleviate any potential welfare issues for seals or fish.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said ministers “recognise the challenges” faced by the aquaculture sector to both manage seal interactions and to ensure the health and welfare of fish.

They added: “In some limited circumstances seals may become trapped in fish farm pens for extended periods, despite efforts to remove them. In such cases, and where there is concern for the seal’s welfare, it is for the attending vet to determine the most appropriate course of action to alleviate any suffering since they are best qualified to assess welfare in the specific circumstances.

“We encourage the sector to continue to work to identify non-lethal measures that provide effective protection for fish farms whilst balancing the health and welfare of the surrounding marine environment.”

Main image: Symmol

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