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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
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'Northern Climes, May 2005'

Not many anglers argue against the need to cull seals around the Scottish coast, and, of course, other species as well; cormorants, goosander and merganser. But the problem with this desire for the slaughter of these creatures is that it doesn’t play well with the public. Any politician with an ounce of wit between his or her ears knows that supporting a seal cull is a sure-fire vote loser.

Apart from that, the whole business is like ‘pick your own strawberries’; except that in this case it’s picking your own science. Those who would cull produce reams of scientific evidence to show that culling is desirable and essential. Those against culling produce reams of scientific evidence to show the opposite is true, that there is no justification for culling.

Do people, either for or against culling, stop to ask themselves why there are so many seals? If there is an inappropriate number of this species, then what made it happen? Could it be because of something we humans do or do not do? Are there more of these animals in our coastal waters simply because there is more food there for them to eat?

If, for instance, you were a seal, scouring the depths for sandeels, cod, herring, mackerel or anything else you could get your teeth into, and very little of the later was to found, you would have to look elsewhere in order to survive. What better place to do so than the nearest coastal fish farm?

If you chart the rise in seal numbers, you will find that it mirrors the expansion of fish farming in the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland since the 1980’s. The annual output from Scottish farms is fast approaching 150,000 tonnes each year, amounting to approximately 65 million individual fake fish. All that stands, or rather hangs, between a seal and a cheap supper is a flimsy net. What would you do if you were a hungry seal?

And there is the added problem, although not for seals of course, of fish farm escapes. In the January storms three quarters of a million farm salmon escaped from their cages; a not inconsiderable number of seal suppers. The farmers boast that only 1% of their fish escape each year. Work it out for yourself, 1% of 65 million. The truth is that nobody knows how many fish escape, least of all the Scottish Executive (SE) to whom fish farmers are required by law to report escapes.

I asked the SE recently how many fake salmon escaped from farms in Orkney and Shetland during the January storms. Their answer? “We have received no reports of escapes from Orkney and Shetland during this period.” I asked them about an alleged escape from a fish farm on the Island of Arran in February. Answer? Yes, you’ve guessed.

If the fish farmer doesn’t report an escape, then as far as the SE is concerned it didn’t happen. As a matter of interest, therefore, I wonder if anyone can explain to me where the farm salmon that were being poached from the River Garnock in Ayrshire in February came from. And when is an escape not an escape? If a farmer decides that some of his stock is, say, diseased, might he be tempted just to let them loose, rather than killing and removing them according to regulations and calling it an escape? Can anybody prove otherwise?

At the end of a production cycle, fish are sucked from their cages for onward transmission to the slaughterhouse. I have reports from fish farm workers that, invariably, perhaps a couple of hundred fish are ‘missed’ in the process. When the nets are lifted for cleaning, these fish escape. You may think that 200 farm salmon is not a lot to worry about when each cage holds some 50/60,000. However, multiply that by 20 cages per site times 300 sites and you are soon looking at thousands of unreported escapees.

Not only do these farms pollute our coastal waters and degrade the flora and fauna that depend upon a clean environment for survival, but they also contribute to the unnatural population-explosion of Scottish seals, through the food fed to farm salmon. This is largely manufactured from fish such as sandeels, Norwegian pout, capelin and the like, fish existing near the base of the marine food chain.

It takes 3 tonnes of these small fish to produce one tonne of factory salmon. Until recently in was not unusual for 1 million tonnes a year to be trawled, mashed and processed for fish farms; even today, something like half a million tonnes are taken. This deprives other predators, higher up the chain, cod, mackerel, cormorants, seals, of their food source and accelerates the devastation of our seas; upon which, ultimate, all life on Planet Earth depends.

In April, about 30 cormorants were culled (under licence) on the Tay. Does anybody seriously believe that this will change anything? So what will? Killing a few hundred birds, a few thousand, all of them? From past experience all that happens is that new birds move in to take the place of those that have been culled. Where do you stop? Destroy all the great raptors because they might prey on grouse and sheep? All the seals because they eat fish?

Before a single seal (or cormorant or other fish eating bird for that matter) is culled, would it not be far more useful for everyone concerned to identified, address and resolve the problem? But I suppose that that might be too difficult, politically; government scientists out of work, EU nations at each other’s throats, questions in the House, upsetting the fish farmers, the whole charade of hand-wring from A to B. Far easier to just cull them; seals that is, not politicians, though, come to think of it ...

Rod McGill