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

Mark Carter is Chairman of the Hebridean Marine National Park Partnership. He has a Marine Science degree and was the principle of a sea activity centre on the island of Kerrera. Previously, he has been a self-employed farrier and a community policeman. Many of Mr Carter’s other activities have been in the voluntary sector.

The illegal killing of Scotland's seals: further eyewitness accounts

SCOTTISH FISH FARMERS HAVE A HISTORY OF SHOOTING SEALS. They have done so with little or no regard for other users and stakeholders. Neither is there any system in place to evaluate how many seals are being shot. This report describes a mass seal slaughter carried out by a local fish farmer which began during the early months of 2005. It was conducted in and around a European Union Special Area of Conservation (SAC) whose designation is for the Common Seal (Phoca vitulina).

Mark Carter's images of seals that have been shot

I honestly believe that Scottish Sea Farms, the company involved in the slaughter and based at South Shian by Oban, engaged in what can only be described as a mass slaughter of seals. I estimate that the total number of seals shot in and around the Lismore SAC to be in excess of sixty. The Oban Times ran an article about several seal carcasses being washed up on a local beach, included a pregnant female and a seal pup. Aqua Scot, who has two fin fish farms in Loch Etive also has a history of shooting seals.

Seals are protected under The Conservation of Seals Act 1970. The Act lays down specific criteria for the type of weapon used to cull seals and these must be high-powered rifles. It also gives prohibited seasons for the shooting of seals. Common and grey seals have different periods, collectively banning shooting from June to December.

There are two sections within the act that allow special dispensation for the shooting of seals: Section 9, known as the “fisherman’s clause”, terms used within this section refer to fishing nets not fish farm nets. It is this section that fish farms often try to hide behind whilst shooting seals. It was set in place for humane and harassment reasons where seals were actually causing problems to fishermen whilst engaged in fishing.

Section 10 is the licensed section, issued by the Scottish Executive.

In addition to this Act, Ministers have the power to create Conservation Orders as was the case during the phocine distemper virus (PDV) outbreaks. The Seal Conservation Order 2002 expired in September 2004. I think that this was regularly flouted by fish farms in the Oban area, the first dead seal picture shown here was shot by Aqua Scot in Loch Etive while the Seal Conservation Order was in place.

In my view, fish farm companies regularly flout the above legislation because there is little chance of them being caught. I think that they also flout the Regulations laid down by the European Habitats Directive, known as Natura 2000. The Habitats Directive gets a little complicated but a brief account follows: -

  • The Habitats Directive and its updates within Circular 6/95 (2000) provide for sites Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protected Areas to be designated. Some of these sites have been designated for seals, which are included under Annex Two ‘Priority Species’.
  • Circular 6/95 provides that ANY priority species found in significance in any Natura 2000 Site must also be covered.
  • Circular 6/95 also states that events outside the SAC that have effect on the favourable conservation status must be taken into account.
  • As fish farming constitutes a “plan or project” under the Habitats Directive, Article 6.3 states that, “likely to have significant effect… shall be subject to appropriate assessment”.
  • The last useful section here is the “polluter pays” principle.

What does this mean for the seals and why has the “Precautionary Principle” never been used in a Scottish marine situation?

When not covered under the The Seal Conservation Act, the Habitats Directive provides additional benefits in areas in and out with Natura 2000 Sites. The Sea Mammal Research Unit states that, “Common seals may travel tens of kilometres from their haul outs” and “Grey seals, hundreds of kilometres”. Under Circular 6/95 this would indicate that any common seal within tens of kilometres from any SAC where these seals occur in significance are covered.

In the Oban area I believe that this legislation would include seal colonies surrounding the Lismore SAC, which is designated for Common seals. This would include the Loch Etive, Loch Creran, Shuna and Kerrera colonies. All of which have shown a decline of seal numbers in recent years. This decline has been noticed and reported on by local boat operators whose businesses have been affected. The sight of dead seals has horrified tourists.

SNH appear to have a poor grasp of the Habitats Directive and, in my opinion, fail to follow basic procedures. This has resulted in two independent complaints being sent to the EU Commissioner for the Environment, further details can be found on the Hebridean Partnership’s website: www.hmnpp.org.uk . Government appears reluctant to accept that a problem exists; many agencies appear to lack good communication between them. The police are beset by resource problems and devolution. In addition Strathclyde Police seem to indicate that they need direction from the Scottish Executive with regard to the Habitats Directive.

In the Oban area seal carcasses have regularly been washed ashore, usually with bullet holes, some with multiple apertures consistent with those resultant from a shotgun blast. These occurrences continued even during the Seal Conservation Order 2002, where no seals should have been shot, except for humane reasons. Some of these occurrences have been reported to the police, SNH, SSPCA and the fish farms. SNH responded: “We were surprised with the number of seals being shot,” but have refused to disclose information, even following a request under the Freedom of Information and Environment Acts.

The shooting of seals by fin fish farms continues unabated; the second dead seal pictured here is of a young female; her body was found washed ashore by young children. If you would like to put an end to this blatant abuse of our seas resources please contact your MSP, police and SNH. Don’t be fobbed of by the excuse, “well of course you know it’s a legal activity”. We need to name and shame companies that abuse the system. Even when shot legally, is it ethically correct? I would like to see a campaign similar to that of ‘dolphin friendly tuna’. Why not ask your supermarkets if their salmon has come from a ‘seal friendly source’ and get it marked with the words, ‘SEAL FRIENDLY SALMON’.