The Scottish Government has reprimanded salmon farming companies for breaking the rules on shooting seals — but has not taken any further action.
Government emails released under freedom of information law reveal that officials told off two multinational firms in Scotland for failing to report seal shootings in time. A third has been accused of having “something amiss” with its strategy for dealing with seals.
The companies dispute the allegations, and stress that they have a duty to protect their fish from harm. More than half a million caged salmon were killed by seals in 2020, they say.
Campaigners, however, accuse the salmon farming industry of being “trigger happy” and having shot over a thousand seals since 2011. They attack Scottish ministers for “turning a blind eye” to the killing.
There have been conflicts between seals and the salmon farming industry for years. Seals attempt to access farm cages in lochs to eat the salmon, and farmers try to stop them with nets, scarers or guns.
New industry figures show that the 75 seals shot by salmon farms under licence in 2020 was the highest since 2014. The Ferret reported in June 2020 that more were being killed ahead of a government ban.
The Scottish Government ceased granting licences to shoot seals to protect farmed salmon on 1 February 2021. This was to save Scotland’s £180 million business exporting salmon to the US, which is banning imports from countries that allow seals to be killed to protect fisheries.
Seals shot on or around salmon farms
The industry has demanded compensation from the government for not being allowed to kill seals. It says it lost £13 million from seal attacks in 2020.
Salmon farming companies have also withdrawn applications for using noise alarms to scare away seals. This followed concerns from the government’s wildlife agency, NatureScot, that the noise could hurt whales, dolphins and porpoises.
Another method of protecting salmon cages is to install nets to prevent seals gaining access. Companies said they had spent £8 million on “anti-predator” nets in 2020-21.
The Scottish Government has released a series of emails about problems with company seal-shooting licences to the anti-fish-farming campaign group, Scottish Salmon Watch.
One government email suggested that because of the coronavirus pandemic “these seal licence misdemeanours will not be actioned”. Another said that the company would be telephoned to “remind them of their responsibilities” followed up by a letter.
In another case Mowi was said by government officials to have killed a seal at Poolewe in Wester Ross on 22 January 2020 outwith its seal licence. The company said the animal had been shot “on welfare grounds” with the agreement of the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Other emails disclose concerns about the seal control strategy being adopted at Loch Roag on the Isle of Lewis by the Scottish Salmon Company (SSC), which is owned in the Faroe Islands. “We agree there would appear to be something amiss with the SSC anti-predator strategy,” said one government official in January 2020.
This followed criticisms from an unnamed expert at the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University. “It seems highly unusual for fish farms in one area to be targeted so heavily by seals,” the expert wrote.
Norwegian-owned Scottish Sea Farms was sent an email on 14 January 2021 warning that it had “acted outwith the conditions of your seal licence” by failing to report a seal-shooting in Shetland within 48 hours. The company said it had emailed notification in time, but had not logged the killing on the government’s online reporting system.
Don Staniford from Scottish Salmon Watch accused “trigger-happy” salmon companies of a “killing spree”. Scottish salmon was “stained with the blood of dead seals”, he claimed.
“It is shocking to read that seal licence misdemeanours are ignored by the Scottish Government,” he added. “By turning a blind eye, the government has effectively given salmon farmers licence to kill.”
John Robins from the campaign group, Animal Concern, also accused the government of ignoring breaches to the seal shooting rules. He has offered a £5,000 reward for information leading to a conviction for illegally shooting seals at salmon farms.
He warned: “Salmon farmers in remote areas may simply ignore the ban and continue shooting, knowing there are no eyewitnesses to what they are doing.”
Salmon farming companies defended their actions. The Scottish Salmon Company stressed that it had a responsibility to keep its fish free from stress and harm.
“Our Loch Roag sites were subject to elevated seal predation in late 2019 and early 2020. As a last resort we requested, and were granted, an increase in our license after consultation with Marine Scotland,” said a company spokesperson.
“Dispatching seals was only ever used once all alternative means of deterrence had been exhausted and we were not in breach of our license conditions.”
The spokesperson added: “Over the past year, we have invested substantially in improving our seal deterrent measures across all our sites, including the rollout of more robust net material which is more resistant to damage from seal attacks.”
Scottish Sea Farms managing director, Jim Gallagher said: “No farmer wants to see any animal come to harm. However just as wild fisheries groups have found it necessary to kill seals to protect wild salmon stocks — over 900 seals in the last 10 years, in fact — so too there have been instances where it has been a necessary last resort measure to protect our farmed salmon from predation.
“The marked decrease in such killings over the same decade, a period in which Scotland’s seal population has continued to grow and pressure on available food sources has never been greater, is testament to the work and investment we have put into finding alternative ways to keep salmon and seals safely separate; work that very much continues.”
Mowi left it to the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO), which represents the industry, to comment. “The cases raised are matters for the individual companies concerned,” SSPO’s spokesperson told The Ferret.
“The legislative exemption which allowed salmon farmers to shoot seals, a measure only ever taken as a last resort, has now been removed.”
On 18 February SSPO asked the Scottish Government for compensation to help cover the £13 million losses from the half million salmon killed by seals in 2020. “The Scottish Government has stopped fish farmers taking action to protect the welfare of fish without putting anything else in place,” said SSPO chief executive, former Liberal Democrat MSP, Tavish Scott.
“The government has taken virtually every option of deterrence away from salmon farmers. Therefore the government must recognise the need for compensation.”
The Scottish Government confirmed that licences to shoot seals were no longer being granted to protect farmed salmon. Any potential offences should be reported to Police Scotland, it said.
Licences issued in the past to allow “limited lethal removal” of seals were subject to “strict” legal conditions, a government spokesperson said.
“Where Marine Scotland are informed of licence holders acting outwith these conditions, these are referred to Marine Scotland Compliance. Any course of action taken is based the level of evidence provided and within the current Covid-19 restrictions.”
Emails released under freedom of information law
Cover image thanks to iStock/Ian Dyball.