Salmon farmers have sounded the alarm over predation attacks by seals following a major incident at a Skye-based farm in which 52,000 juvenile salmon were lost.
The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) says that from May 2019 to May 2020 more than half a million farmed salmon in Scotland died as a result of seal attacks, either directly from a physical attack or indirectly from stress arising from being subjected to an attack. New regulations have also limited the action farmers can take to control seal predation.
In the year to May 2020, the SSPO said, seal attacks resulted in the death of around 560,000 farmed salmon, with a farm gate direct loss valued at over £13m.
The Skye attack, on 31 December, was at a farm based at Portree and managed by The Scottish Salmon Company. The site was due to have new “seal proof” netting technology installed by the end of January.
A spokesperson for The Scottish Salmon Company said: “Our Portree site has recently been subject to persistent attacks from a large group of seals which, despite our best efforts, caused significant damage to one of our nets. Our staff moved quickly to repair this damage but unfortunately a number of fish escaped.
“The health and welfare of our stock is very important and no farmers want to lose their stock. All the members of our team at Portree are extremely disappointed, particularly given they have worked so diligently to maintain an excellent containment record at the site. The incident was reported immediately to Marine Scotland and other stakeholders and we are now working closely with the local fisheries trust to record any sightings and recapture stock wherever possible.
“We take these matters extremely seriously and have invested substantially in measures to ensure containment and deal with predators like seals.”
Recent government actions have reduced the methods available to fish farmers to manage predation including ending of the use of lethal controls by farmers, a change which will come into effect in full at the end of January 2021.
Legislation in the US, drawn up to protect marine mammals, is also set to restrict what types of acoustic deterrent devices (ADDs) may be used, and it effectively means that foreign jurisdictions will need to apply the new rules if they wish to continue exporting to the US. A review into the use of ADDs, announced in July last year, is ongoing.
The SSPO has called for Scotland’s salmon farmers to have full access to all available effective non-lethal measures if they are to fulfil their statutory duty to protect their fish.
Tavish Scott, Chief Executive of the SSPO said: “Salmon farms and seals can co-exist quite happily in the marine environment. Seals can however inflict vicious and widespread damage on salmon farms, killing significant numbers of fish in each attack. That is what has happened to The Scottish Salmon Company farm in Skye. The seals ripped open the nets and killed many fish, with others escaping.
“This distressing incident shows that our farmers need access to a range of effective tools and measures to deter seal attacks and protect their livestock. Our sector is continuing to make substantial investments in new technologies and management methods which follow government regulations. Our approach is consistent with the clear commitments our member companies have made.”
In the 12 months to May 2020, Scottish salmon farming sector investment into preventing predator attacks was £8.4m. Investment into new generation anti-predator nets accounted for £5.3m.