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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
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Guest Column, December 2005

Nigel Smith lives and works on the Island of Skye where he runs a wildlife tourism business. He has voiced his concerns about fish farmers shooting seals in Loch Alsh, on the Road to the Isles, and the impact this has had on his business. Nigel reports what happened.

Marine Harvest slaughter Scotland's seals: an eye-witness account

I recently voiced my concerns about a local salmon farmer shooting seals in Loch Alsh. As I am involved in the marine tourism industry the wildlife in my area is of particular concern to me, to my business and to the 15,000 people who come to Loch Alsh each year to view it.

In October, a Marine Harvest fish farm manager began shooting seals in the vicinity of his salmon cages. I was initially prepared to accept that if a specific seal is causing damage to a salmon farm then shooting is an option, where other methods of scaring seals away from the cages fail, such as acoustic devices and anti-predator nets.

Unfortunately, however, this instance highlighted for me the fact that there is no means of controlling the numbers of seals that they shoot, and as the farm can't identify the culprit seal their strategy appears to be to shoot every seal that comes anywhere near their cages.

In my opinion, this seems to be more like revenge killing for alleged losses, rather than discriminate control. To prevent future seal attacks on salmon farms are all seals to be shot?

This is hard for me to accept, as the salmon farm in question lies between Kylerhea, where the seals feed, and the Islands close to Kyle harbour where they haul out. The seals have no choice but to go past the farm on the way to their feeding grounds.

In effect, every seal, innocent or guilty, becomes a target, if this shooting continues unchecked, there will soon be no more seals left in Loch Alsh.

We have to take the fish farmerís word for it that these losses are caused by seal attack, and not by some other means, such as abrasion from chains or wear and tear on netting or even a dropped net?

There is no independent verification that the excuse used to shoot seals is justified.

Currently, common seals are being shot, how does the farm in question know that it was not the grey seal which was seen in the Loch during October that caused the alleged losses?

Marine Harvest has to claim that the injuries to the seals shown in my photographs were caused by the propeller of a boat. In 35 years of observing seals in this area, I have never seen or heard of an injury other than those caused by bites and scratches.

The seal I photographed was a mature seal that has spent many years in the loch and has successfully avoided being run over for a number of years.

The evidence: photos of wounded seals

It is highly unlikely that the injury was caused by a propeller. The wound is V shaped. The bullet has struck from the seals left side, and as expending ammunition has been used the projectile has started to splay on impact tearing a V shaped flap. The apex of the back is one of the last things you see as the seal dives, if you are taking a rushed shot.

During the 35 years I have been observing seals, zooming about in fast boats for most of my life, I have sometimes come close to running one down. But, as they can dart off at 40mph it's virtually impossible to do so. They hear you coming and because they have such fast reactions they get out of the way in time.

I was surprised to learn from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) that fish farmers are perfectly within their rights to shoot seals and can shoot as many as they want.

I don`t think that SNH is particularly happy about the situation, but I am not sure if they are doing anything to change it.

I might sympathise with an industry that needs to kill seals. Unfortunately, however, it allows the indiscriminate shooting of Scotland's wildlife without any proper controls. There is nobody to independently verify the losses sustained by the seal population. Neither is there anyone present to supervise the person doing the shooting or what is shot.

It is most likely that the alleged damage to the fish farm cage was caused by a grey seal (out of season) that turned up in Loch Alsh at the end of September. It was seen around the farm on several occasions. If this was the case, then why the slaughter of common seals?

During the last two weeks of October there were no seals in Loch Alsh for me to show my guests. Normally at this time we would find between 20 and 40 sitting on the rocks; as they have been, every day for thousands of years; long before the salmon farms arrived and long before I started my business 8 years ago.

Marine Harvest has shown scant regard for my business or for the local people who enjoy seeing the seals and the thousands of people who come to view Scotland's wildlife in its natural state each year.

All we had to look at in October, courtesy of Marine Harvest I think, were washed up seal corpses, left to rot on the beaches where they were born.

I don't know what next year might bring, but Marine Harvest but I think that they will continue to shoot our seals.

It has been a difficult decision to express my concern publicly as I have now opened myself up to the possibility that a more determined effort will be made to eradicate all the seals in Loch Alsh, in order to teach me a lesson for complaining.

Should I have said nothing and hoped that they would just stop? Marine Harvest has made it impossible for me to do so.

I will continue to monitor the losses and photograph the evidence in the hope that something might be done one day to protect our wildlife from this uncontrolled, indiscriminate and wholesale slaughter.