The number of seals shot by the fish farming industry has doubled ahead of a proposed government ban, prompting fears of a “killing spree”.
New official figures reveal that salmon farmers killed 31 seals in the first three months of 2020, compared to 15 in the same period in 2019. They are shot under licence to prevent them from attacking salmon cages and eating the fish.
Animal welfare campaigners fear that there could be a further spate of seal shooting before the ban comes into force, and are demanding immediate action. The ban is due to be debated at Holyrood on 17 June.
The Ferret reported on 2 June that the Scottish Government was planning to ban 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. They have lodged late amendments to the Animals and Wildlife Bill which is nearing its final stage in the Scottish Parliament.
Now figures released by the government’s Marine Scotland agency show that three fish farming companies shot 19 grey seals and 12 common seals in January, February and March 2020. One other common seal was shot by a wild fisheries management group.
This compares to 10 grey and five common seals killed by fish farms in the first quarter of 2019. Six other seals were shot by wild fisheries management groups.
The Scottish animal campaigns charity, OneKind, pointed out that the current licences to kill seals run to 31 January 2021. “The increase in shooting over the last two reported periods is shocking,” said the group’s policy advisor, Libby Anderson.
“OneKind has raised concerns about the potential for a spike in seal shooting if the legislation is not implemented immediately. We saw that happen last year when beavers received protected status in Scotland, and the new figures reinforce the need to learn from that experience.”
Anderson urged the Scottish Government to bring the ban into force immediately. “Our main aim now is to ensure that the ban is permanent, comprehensive and watertight,” she said.
“Given that there are existing powers under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 to vary or revoke licences, we would like to see those invoked to stop seal shooting as soon as the legislation is passed.”
Don Staniford, an anti-fish-farming campaigner from Scottish Salmon Watch, accused the industry of a “cruel slaughter” of seals. “Salmon farms must hang up their guns and stop killing seals in lochs across Scotland,” he said.
“Trigger happy salmon farmers are going on a killing spree before the US rules kick in.”
Seal killing ‘bloodbath’ shows ban is vital
The Scottish Greens backed calls to bring the ban into force at once. “This alarming rise in seal killing shows how vital a ban on this bloodbath is needed,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.
“After years of pressure the Scottish Government is finally moving on this, but apparently only to protect salmon exports to the US. This needs to be done for animal protection reasons, which means preventing an even bigger spike by introducing it without delay.”
Ruskell was also concerned that fish farms would now increase the use of acoustic deterrent devices to scare away seals. The noise they broadcast could cause “serious harm to other marine life such as dolphins and porpoises,” he warned.
He has lodged an amendment to the Animals and Wildlife Bill to try and prevent more devices being deployed. The Greens have also introduced other amendments to try to prevent the shooting of mountain hares and beavers.
“The addition of seal protection also gives us the opportunity to protect other species in this legislation,” Ruskell added. “The Scottish Greens will be pushing for MSPs to back stronger protection for mountain hares and beavers.”
The Ferret has been reporting on the mass killing of mountain hares to protect grouse stocks for shooting since 2016. We have also written about the “wholesale slaughter” of beavers by farmers in Tayside.
The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, which represents fish farming companies, pointed out that seal shooting had fallen over the last nine years. “The number of seals legally shot by the Scottish salmon sector has gone down by 73 per cent since 2011,” said the organisation’s director of strategic engagement, Hamish Macdonell.
“The shooting of an animal is never an easy decision for a farmer and is only done as a last resort in order to protect livestock – which, like any other farming sector, Scotland’s salmon farmers have a statutory duty to do.”
He added: “Our farmers are also continuing to make substantial investments into new technologies and management methods in order to end the use of lethal control methods next year, in line with the clear commitments made by the sector.”
The Scottish Government stressed that it was committed to the highest standards of animal welfare. “Our amendments will increase the penalties associated with harming seals in line with the most serious wildlife offences set out in the Animals and Wildlife Bill by removing specific grounds for which licences may be granted to take seals,” said a spokesperson.
“An important consequence will be to ensure that Scotland can continue to export farmed salmon to the US when new US legislative provisions come into force in 2022. The US market is vital to the Scottish economy, supporting jobs, businesses and local communities across Scotland.”
The government spokesperson added: “We are giving all amendments lodged under the Animals and Wildlife Bill careful consideration, and we will outline our position at the stage three debate on 17 June.”
This story was edited at 07.25 on 12 June 2020 to add comments from the Scottish Government. Photo thanks to iStock/PABimages.