NEW laws to protect seals in Scotland have been welcomed by the salmon farming industry and condemned as useless by a wildlife campaigner.
On Monday the Marine (Scotland) Act made it illegal to shoot any seal in Scottish waters without a licence unless it is to end the seal suffering.
The Scottish government says this will bring an end to unregulated seal management.
They also intend to create a number of conservation areas to protect declining common seal populations in Shetland, Orkney, Western Isles, Moray Firth and Firth of Tay.
Environment secretary Richard Lochhead said the new act would protect both wildlife and industry in the marine environment.
“It will allow industry to maximise the benefits from sustainable fishing and aquaculture while minimising any loss to seal predation and providing important seal populations the necessary protection to breed and survive in our waters.”
Salmon farmers have welcomed the new laws, saying that it will force them to report every seal that has been shot, proving how many predators have been killed.
The industry claims it loses £500,000 of salmon every year to seals, and shoots about 500. Wildlife campaigners have estimated the number killed at between 3,500 and 5,000.
Shetland Aquaculture general manager David Sandison said: “Under the new legislation we are being held to account more than we would previously have been, but we also have a legal protection that we didn’t have before.”
He said the new law required salmon farmers to identify an individual “rogue” seal, and demonstrate they had taken every measure to exclude it before using the last resort.
However animal rights campaigner John Robins, of Animal Concern, said the new law would actually give licence holders the right to shoot any seal at any time.
“This is a useless piece of legislation that will do more harm than good. They say they have improved the protection of seals. I say they have done away with the closed season. Anyone granted a license will be able to shoot seals during the breeding season, killing mother seals and leaving their pups to starve to death,” he said.
Almost 70 people have applied for licences to shoot seals in Scotland under the new law.
Robins has objected to all 38 applications from salmon farms, saying they have no need to shoot seals as they should have installed exclusion measures to protect fish under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2006.
He said the government had not carried out any checks to see if fish farms had installed proper predator exclusion nets and acoustic scarers to protect their stock.
He has offered a £2,500 reward for information leading to the first successful prosecution of someone killing seals in contravention of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010.
“We want anyone who witnesses seals being shot anywhere in Scotland to immediately contact the police and ourselves to make sure anyone killing without a government license is caught and prosecuted.”