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Seal shooting by Scottish fish farms to be banned

In 2016 the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed a law prohibiting the import of any fish that does not meet US animal welfare standards

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Grey Seal. Photo Tom Moffatt

The Scottish Government is going to ban the fish farming industry from shooting seals to save a £180 million export business to the US, The Ferret can reveal.

Scottish ministers have told MSPs they are intending to introduce an amendment at Holyrood which will outlaw seal shooting by the industry.

The government has been 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. Since 2011 salmon farming companies in Scotland have been licensed to shoot nearly 1,000 seals, including some that were pregnant.

Campaigners have welcomed the move but are concerned it is being introduced with insufficient consultation, for economic rather than animal welfare reasons. The issue is due to be considered by the Scottish Parliament’s environment committee on 3 June.

Fish farmers in Scotland have long been permitted to kill seals that attack and eat caged salmon. But the practice has attracted controversy, with some companies promising to stop the shooting.

Government figures show that a total of 947 grey and common seals were killed by fish farms from 2011 to 2019. But over that period the numbers have fallen from above 200 per year to around 50.

There were 42 seals killed by Scottish fish farms in 2019; 54 in 2018.

In 2016 the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed a law prohibiting the import of any fish that does not meet US animal welfare standards. It is illegal to intentionally kill or injure seals in any commercial US fishing operation.

Countries were given five years to “reliably certify that exports of fish and fish products to the US are not associated with a fishery in which intentional killing or serious injury of a marine mammal is allowed.”

The Ferret reported in 2018 that the Scottish Government had been secretly trying to wriggle out of the US ban. Internal emails released under freedom of information law revealed that officials had been trying to persuade the US government to exempt Scotland’s salmon farming industry.

In 2016 we also reported evidence from scientists that hundreds of seals were shot inhumanely in Scotland. Some were killed when they were pregnant or feeding their young, leaving seal pups to starve to death.

Now Scottish ministers have disclosed they will seek to amend the Animals and Wildlife Bill currently on its way through parliament. They are drafting amendments restricting their powers to licence seal killing and increasing penalties for illegal killing.

The government’s plans were disclosed in a letter from the rural affairs minister, Mairi Gougeon, to Holyrood’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. One of the consequences of the amendments will be to “ensure compliance” with US animal welfare law, she said.

She pointed out that unless Scotland showed by 1 March 2021 that it was outlawing seal shooting, it would not be able to export farmed salmon to the US from 1 January 2022.

Gougeon said: “The US export market for farmed salmon in 2019 was worth £179 million to the Scottish economy, therefore it is vital that this market is kept open through the implementation of these amendments.”

She told MSPs that the amendments would be introduced to parliament at stage three of the Animals and Wildlife Bill, instead of stage two as usual. “While I appreciate that it is not standard practice to bring forward such amendments at stage three, for a number of reasons this has become a necessity,” she added.

She blamed a “lack of clarity” from the US on how the new law should be interpreted and the “considerable re-deployment of resources” caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The stage three debate is expected before 27 June.

The Scottish Greens argued that the amendments should have been included in the bill from the outset. “The Scottish Government has been under enormous pressure for years to act on the wholesale slaughter of seals by industrial-scale fish farming,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“So while I welcome this long-awaited development, the timing suggests it may be more about making sure Scottish salmon stays on American plates than any real consideration for animal protection. Such an important move should have been in this legislation from the start.”

Seals ‘shot while pregnant’

The Scottish animal campaigns charity, OneKind, is about to launch a campaign for an outright ban on all seal shooting. “While numbers may have reduced over the last decade, the welfare concerns have continued,” said the group’s director, Bob Elliot.

“Seals have been shot while pregnant or lactating, condemning unborn or new-born seals to death. Others have been found shot in the jaw or neck, or with multiple gunshot wounds.”

Elliot added: “Obviously, if the outcome of these amendments is an effective and permanent ban on shooting seals in Scotland, we welcome them. But welfare and conservation stakeholders have not been consulted or had the opportunity to give evidence.

“The amendments are designed to protect the fish farming industry from a pending export ban and seal welfare is not given as a reason. We need to be reassured that everything possible is being done to protect these charismatic marine mammals – otherwise, there is still work to do.”

Don Staniford from Scottish Salmon Watch accused the fish farming industry of putting profits before wildlife. “Scottish ministers have been dragged kicking and screaming for over a decade to ban seal killing on salmon farms,” he said.

He also called for a ban on the noise machines used to try and scare seals away from salmon cages because of the harm they can do harbour porpoises. Campaigners have previously urged the use of anti-predator nets to keep seals away from the cages.

The Scottish Government confirmed that it was planning to stop fish farms from shooting seals. “The Scottish Government is committed to the highest standards of welfare for our animals,” said a spokesperson.

“These 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.”

The government stressed the importance of farmed salmon exports to the US. “The US market is vital to the Scottish economy, supporting jobs, businesses and local communities across Scotland,” added the spokesperson.

“We have taken the unusual step of seeking to agree with the parliamentary authorities to lodge appropriate amendments at stage three in order to allow best use of parliamentary time in the current difficult circumstances. Marine Scotland officials will give evidence to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee on 3 June.”

The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, which represents fish farm companies, highlighted the damage that seals do. “Scotland’s growing seal population directly kills half a million farmed salmon in attacks every year, with thousands more fish dying from stress,” said the organisation’s director of strategic engagement, Hamish Macdonell.

“As a result, predator management is vital in protecting the welfare of our livestock. The sector is however committed to the halting of shooting as a control method and in recent years has invested millions of pounds in the introduction of new predator management tools including new net designs and seal blinds.”