If fish farmers are not allowed to kill seals even if they break into a salmon pen, the industry should be compensated for the resulting losses. That’s the message from the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation to the Scottish government, which has outlawed the use of lethal force against seals. The Scottish government has indicated that compensation is not being considered, but said it would work with the industry to find sustainable solutions.
The regulations in Scotland, which came into effect from the end of January, mean that farmers can no longer shoot seals as a last resort. They were introduced in order to ensure that exports of seafood to the United States can continue after 1 January 2023, when the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) will apply.
The Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protection and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020 amended the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 (“the 2010 Act”) to remove two grounds – for the purpose of protecting the health and welfare of farmed fish and to prevent serious damage to fisheries and fish farm – under which Scottish ministers can grant licences to kill or take seals. It also increased the penalties for “killing, injuring or taking” seals, which can now include up to five years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
A spokesperson for the Scottish government said: “We appreciate that part of the sector may face the risk of increased seal predation following changes to the seal licensing system. While some producers have already moved away from the lethal control of seals, we will work with the industry to find sustainable ways of protecting fish from predators, and will discuss the requirement for guidance on seal related issues. There are currently no plans to compensate for stock loss as a result of seal attacks.”
Marine Scotland has published guidance which provides details on how the seal licensing regime that will operate under the remaining seal licensing provisions within the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010.
The SSPO said that, despite repeated requests, the Scottish Government has so far failed to provide any guidance on what fish farmers should do if a seal gets into a pen, or how to deal with seals harassing or attacking fish from outside the pen.
Farmers say that shooting seals is only ever a last resort. In the 12 months to 31 January, 70 seals were killed in this way, the highest number for seven years. Scotland’s seal population is booming, the SSPO said, with numbers estimated to be at least 132,000. The sector has spent £8m in the last 12 months on anti-predator nets to protect fish from seals. Seals also represent a threat to wild salmon stocks, the SSPO said.
The situation at sea contrasts with that on land. Under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, if a dog attacks sheep on agricultural land, the person in charge of the dog is guilty of an offence, and under certain circumstances a farmer is permitted to shoot a dog worrying livestock.
Figures published today show that more than 500,000 farmed salmon were killed by seals in 2020, although the SSPO said many more are likely to have died from the stress of being in close proximity to a seal in a salmon pen. The SSPO calculates that this equates to more than £13m in lost revenue for Scotland’s salmon farmers, a loss which they say should be compensated for.
Tavish Scott, Chief Executive of the SSPO, said: “The Scottish Government has stopped fish farmers taking action to protect the welfare of fish without putting anything else in place. The law is a mess with three conflicting legislations. Farmers don’t know what they are legally permitted to do if a seal gets into a salmon pen.
“The government has taken virtually every option of deterrence away from salmon farmers. Therefore the government must recognise the need for compensation. Our members cannot be expected to cope with millions of pounds in losses every year with absolutely no guidance from the Scottish Government as to how they approach this problem.”