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Opinion: A voice for the seals

For the past 24 years I have been looking after abandoned, sick and injured seals in Shetland and thus it has become my life’s work.

I have thought long and hard about the latest seal legislation drawn up by the Scottish government, which gives fish farmers, anglers and netsmen a licence to shoot seals.

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As I read it I wondered why I felt a great lack of truth about Part 6 of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, because to my mind this new law is not designed to protect seals. It is all about protecting the economy, at the seal’s expense.

The plight of the common seal is already well known. Since 1997 their numbers around Shetland have dropped by 50 per cent from 6,000 to 3,000.

The health of the common seals we have been looking after at Hillswick since 1999 has deteriorated alarmingly. More and more of them are being born premature and they require far more intensive and longer care than ever before just to keep them alive.

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The latest report from the world’s leading seal rehabilitation and study centre at Pieterburen, in Holland, says that for the second year running they have been “swamped in critically ill seals”.

Their report says: “It is very sad that we have to reach the conclusion that half of all the common seals that were born last summer are critically sick.” The alarm bells are ringing loud and clear for the common seal in European waters.

The grey seal is a much more resilient creature and is managing better. However while pup production has increased in some parts of Scotland and has levelled off in many areas, in Shetland the population has remained low and at a similar figure to those recorded over 30 years ago.

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The Seal Mammal Research Unit estimates that the population has stayed between 3,000 and 3,500 grey seals for Shetland for the past six years – hardly the ‘out of control’ number we are led to believe

So, I ask myself, why on earth would a decision be taken to hand out licences to shoot seals to anyone based on these figures?

Within a month of the Scottish government introducing the new law, 65 licences to shoot 1,298 seals in Scotland have been granted – 984 greys and 314 commons.

In Shetland eight licences to shoot 120 grey seals and 10 common seals have been granted. Applications were received to shoot far more of both species – three times the number granted of grey seals, and four times the number of common seals.

Again I ask myself, on what grounds?

The government states that shooting seals should be a very last resort. They state: “Any licence will only be granted if there is no satisfactory alternative.”

However I understand that none of the salmon farms who were granted licences had been checked beforehand to see if they had tensioned nets, anti predator nets or acoustic deterrent devices (ADDs) installed.

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A government survey showed that 80 per cent of salmon farms in Scotland do not have anti predator nets, yet Shetland Islands Council insists that to have a licence to farm salmon in Shetland you must have non lethal measures in place to protect your fish. Who is checking up on this?

Given that the industry itself claims that tensioned nets solve their ‘seal problems’, why is this non lethal method not being used in more areas?

One salmon farm in Shetland, I am told, has been given a licence to shoot 29 grey seals and two common seals (and they presumably applied for higher numbers). How do they know they need to kill this many seals to protect their fish?

Who is policing this? Last year six common seals, two pregnant with nearly full term pups, washed up shot dead at Bridge of Walls, a crime that has never been solved.

It was a crime under the previous legislation because they were killed in the closed season, when common seals are breeding. Under the new law there isn’t even a closed season – but you must have a licence.

This was not an isolated incident. Not a year goes by when concerned members of the public do not ring me about incidents they have witnessed but are too frightened to put their names to. Why should this be? After all, this environment belongs to us all.

These unanswered questions make it hard for me to have faith that the rules behind these licences will be adhered to. Maybe a community seal alert is what is needed here.

I too, even as I write this, feel a sense of trepidation, but I have been silent too long.

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This is not an attack on the salmon industry nor on the Scottish government nor on the Sea Mammal Research Unit, who provided the figures for a safe “Permitted Biological Removal” in “Seal Conservation Areas”, including Shetland.

I know that some salmon farmers are genuine friends of the environment, but I also know that some are not.

Surely it would be in everyone’s interest to have a system in place that made sure that every salmon farm had non-lethal, anti-predator measures in place before they are granted a licence to ensure that shooting a seal is indeed a last resort.

Or even better, only grant a licence to kill an individual “rogue” seal rather than give blanket approval to one salmon farm to kill more than 30 seals in one year.

Without doubt what is needed is a system of policing and monitoring so that we can have confidence that fish farms are adhering to their licence, have a high standard of anti predator measures in place and only shoot seals as a last resort.

This could persuade the world that the salmon farming industry as a whole is a genuine friend of the environment and make them less of a soft target for the more radical end of the animal rights movement.

After all we are all in this together. Surely if we want a healthy and prosperous future for the environment and the economy we have to learn to work together and develop a lifestyle that is in tune with nature, so that our great grandchildren can enjoy life on this earth as much as we do.

Anyone who wants to find out more about the seal licences can go to http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/marine/Licensing/SealLicensing

Anyone with any concerns about the legislation can write to environment minister Roseanna Cunningham at Roseanna.Cunningham.msp@scottish.parliament.uk or Roseanna Cunningham MSP, The Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh EH99 1SP.

Jan Bevington, Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary

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