THE FORMER regional manager of a Shetland salmon farm has been fined £800 after he pled guilty to setting nets for the purpose of taking and killing seals at Lerwick Sheriff Court on Tuesday.
Graham McNally, of 89 Sandveien, Lerwick, was arrested after a raid by police and investigators from the animal welfare charity Scottish SPCA on the Hoganess salmon farm in August 2011.
The investigators found green “curtain” nets dangling from walkways around two out of 12 cages at the Cloudin site, in Vaila Sound, off Shetland’s west mainland.
Initially the 52 year old had denied that he had set the nets to kill seals, and in court he maintained it had been a technical offence and that had the nets been tensioned properly he would not be pleading guilty.
Defence agent Martin Sinclair also stressed that no seals or other wildlife had been killed by the nets while they were deployed at various times between 16 March and 1 August 2011.
However procurator fiscal Tom Dysart of the Crown Office’s recently formed wildlife and environment unit said that salmon workers had refused to deploy the nets because of the threat to wildlife.
“Although the accused maintained when interviewed that the two nets were simply predator nets, several employees at the site were clear that their purpose was to catch seals and they themselves refused to deploy or check the nets due to their awareness of the risks to wildlife,” he said. The case is the first to have led to a conviction in a UK court under the European Habitats Directive, and highlighted the tension between the salmon industry and the conservation movement.
Mr Dysart said that in July 2011 the SSPCA received information that nets had been set “in an effort to kill seals which had been attacking fish”.
When they raided the site on 1 August they found two old nets used to deter birds draped around one fifth of one cage and one quarter of another.
A vet had examined the nets and concluded their design was “likely to catch and kill seals”, and the local council said they would not have been effective at deterring seals.
Meanwhile two proper predator nets were lying unused at the company’s shore base, because they took too much time and effort to deploy, Mr Dysart said.
However Mr Sinclair argued that only 13 per cent of the salmon industry used tensioned anti-predator nets because they were ineffective and risked harming other forms of wildlife.
He insisted that the curtain nets had only been deployed after seals had attacked the salmon cages in question and put the fish off their feed.
They had been proved to be effective as the salmon had started eating properly once they had been put in place, he said.
“The analogy I would use is that of netting strawberries to frighten away birds,” he said, and the only crime was to have failed to apply the proper tension.
Mr Sinclair said that his client was proud of his 28 year record working in the salmon industry, the past nine of which had been running the five sites now operated by Norwegian-owned Meridian Salmon Ltd.
He insisted there was no intention to kill seals, and that no wildlife had been killed while the nets were in place.
“This is a technical offence because there is no issue of seals being killed,” he said.
McNally was suspended from the company after the investigation began and has since been made redundant, and has no intention of rejoining the fish farming industry.
He has now re-trained to work for the offshore energy sector where he started work five weeks ago.
Sheriff Philip Mann said he did not believe McNally had “deliberately targeted seals” and that his motive was to protect the welfare of the fish he was responsible for.
“Also significant is that fact that no seals or other wildlife were apparently damaged by the deployment of these nets,” he said.
Had the nets been properly tensioned as McNally had intended, there would have been no crime.
Fining him, the sheriff said: “In approaching sentence I am concerned not so much with punishment for what’s been done, but by sending a message by way of deterrent.”
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