In an opinion piece timed to co-incide with the release of the new film ‘Silent Slaughter’, the conservation activist, author and campaigner, Dominic Dyer, calls for a total ban on the shooting of seals off the coast of Scotland, which is happening to protect the farmed fishing industry
Every year the horrific clubbing to death of tens of thousands of seal pups on the blood-soaked ice flows of Newfoundland causes huge global anger towards the Canadian Government, not least in Britain where the vast majority of people can see no justification for such cruelty and suffering.
However, many caring and compassionate people in Britain will be shocked to learn that they could inadvertently be contributing to the killing of seals around our own coastline, simply as a result of purchasing farmed salmon in their local supermarket.
Around 38% of the world population of grey seals is found in Britain and over 90% of these breed in Scotland, mostly in the Hebrides and Orkney. Britain is also home to nearly 40% of all the European common seals with over 87% living around Scotland in the Hebrides and the Northern Isles, the Firth of Tay and the Moray Firth.This makes Scotland one of the most important habitats for seals anywhere in the world.
Back in 1978, under huge pressure from the Scottish fishing industry and with the growing political power of the Scottish National Party, for whom a key focus was to protect Scotland’s fisheries, the Labour Government of Prime Minister Jim Callaghan planned a massive seal cull in Orkney. Large numbers of marksmen with expertise in seal killing, were flown in from Norway to kill over 6,000 seals around the coast of Orkney. To the surprise of the Government this mass slaughter of seals caused huge public anger across the nation.
Greenpeace, which had only recently set up an office in Britain, sent its flag ship vessel Rainbow Warrior to Orkney along with hundreds of volunteers who took to the beaches and put themselves between the seals and the Norwegian seal killers.
As TV reports and newspaper images of young men and women risking their own safety to save seals from being shot on the beautiful beaches of Orkney, reached millions of people in Britain and around the world, Jim Callaghan soon realised he had a PR disaster on his hands, only months from a General Election, and he decided to call off the seal cull.
Forty years on, Scotland’s wild fishing industry has significantly declined and is no longer a major threat to the seal population. However the pressure to kill seals has not gone away and today it’s the rapidly expanding fish farming industry which is targeting seals.
The Scottish salmon farming industry produces over 155,000 tonnes of fish a year and is of vital economic importance to the highlands and islands of Scotland. The industry employs thousands of people and not only provides products for all the major super markets in Britain but also generates over £500 million of exports a year.
The Scottish Government has significantly increased the protection for seals with the introduction of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, which for the first time, makes it an offence to shoot seals without a licence at any time, unless to alleviate suffering.
However in view of the economic value and political influence of the powerful fish farming industry, the Scottish Government continues to issue licences to shoot seals to protect fish stocks.
Like the badger cull in England, the Scottish Government has attempted to withhold information from the public on where seals are being killed around the coast of Scotland, citing the public safety of fish farm staff workers and their families.
But in 2015 two landmark decisions by the Scottish Information Commissioner, means that details on where seals are shot now have to be made publicly available.
In 2017 the Scottish Government confirmed that 993 seal cull licences were applied for, resulting in 245 grey seals and 113 common seals being shot to protect fish stocks in fish farms.
Licence holders are not monitored by any government officials when they are shooting seals and many wildlife protection campaigners have serious doubts over the accuracy of the licence return figures published.
Unlike badger culling, there is no closed season for shooting seals, which has led to numerous reports of lactating mothers being shot, leaving their pups to suffer a slow painful death from starvation.
As wildlife biologist and TV presenter Liz Daley and award-winning Lush filmmaker Ruth Peacey recently found in making their short film for Lush on the killing of seals in Scotland Silent Slaughter, dead seals are turning up on remote beaches on the Shetland Isles with bullet wounds.
With wildlife tourism in Shetland, Orkney and other remote parts of Scotland generating tens of millions of pounds for the economy, shot seals on beaches could become a serious problem for the Scottish tourism industry. And although a Salmon, Aquaculture and Seals Working Group has been established to research non-lethal methods to deter seals from harming salmon in fish farms, the killing continues.
As Liz Daley found in Silent Slaughter, although acoustic devices can be an effective means of clearing seals from the vicinity of fish farms, they can have a wider negative impact on the behaviour and welfare of other cetaceans including porpoises, dolphins and whales all of which are to be found around the Scottish coastline.
Ultimately the most effective means of preventing seals from predating on salmon in fish farms, is double netting combined with effective tensioning devices and use of divers for regular net inspection and the removal of dead fish.
The RSPCA deserves credit for developing its Freedom Food certification code for farmed salmon and the welfare measures this applies to producers, has undoubtedly led to a significant drop in the number of seals killed in Scotland. However, many shoppers will remain deeply concerned that the RSPCA and major supermarkets continue to sell Freedom Food certified salmon, that could have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of seals in Scotland every year.
In view of the high level of public concern on seal culling and its negative impact on the reputation of the Scottish fish farming and tourism industry, it’s time the Scottish Government introduced an amendment to the Marine (Scotland Act) 2010, for a complete ban on the killing of seals under any circumstances.
Looking to the future, the Scottish Government should jointly fund a project with the fish farming industry and the major food retailers to introduce a range of effective non-lethal measures to keep seals away from fish farms, without having any wider negative impact on other cetaceans.
The days of finding the carcases of shot seals on some of the most remote and beautiful beaches in Scotland, to put farmed salmon on the supermarket shelves, must end.
Consumers of farmed salmon products should ask the major supermarkets to support a total ban on seal culling and to work with the Scottish Government, fish farming industry and RSPCA to fund non-lethal methods of keeping seals away from fish farms
This seal-friendly approach to farmed salmon production should be publicised in supermarkets via clear labelling, in-store promotion materials and wider media advertising.
About This Author
Dominic Dyer is CEO of the Badger Trust and British Wildlife Advocate at the Born Free Foundation.
Photo credit: William Warby, Flickr (wwarby)