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US import ban on fish farms that shoot seals could harm local salmon industry

ENVIRONMENTAL groups have renewed their calls for the Scottish Government to outlaw the shooting of seals amid the spectre of a US import ban on salmon from fish farms that kill the animals.

As things stand, new US rules due to come into force in 2022 will leave the Scottish industry unable to export its lucrative product across the Atlantic. The US imported £193 million-worth of Scottish salmon last year.

Emails obtained by environmental campaigner Don Staniford show that the Scottish Government unsuccessfully sought an exemption from the import ban for salmon farms in Scotland.

Fish farms are permitted under government-granted licences to kill the mammals in order to prevent them from attacking and killing the farmed salmon. 

Grieg Seafood Hjaltland, which produces over 60 per cent of Shetland salmon, has invested around £2 million in anti predator technology including extra strong “Econets” at its three sites in Wadbister and high density polyethylene anti-seal nets to protect its other Shetland cages.

The technology has had a tangible effect, with Grieg Seafood Hjaltland having killed just one seal in the past three calendar years – compared to 50 in 2011 alone. Overall the Scottish industry shot 49 seals last year, around a fifth of the 221 recorded killings seven years ago.

Grieg Seafood Hjaltland managing director Grant Cumming.

Grant Cumming of Grieg Seafood Hjaltland said: “We haven’t completely eliminated – since January 2015 we have had to shoot one seal, which is obviously one seal more than we’re happy with.

“I think that all salmon farmers in Shetland wish to stop shooting seals, and we’re doing everything we can to move to a position where we need to shoot as little as possible, and we’re aiming for zero – but we’re not there yet.”

Three years ago campaigners singled out the isles-based industry for criticism after it emerged that half of the 180 seals killed in the preceding two years had been shot in Shetland.

The other main industry culprit, Scottish Sea Farms, has now reduced the number of seals it shoots by around a third. But 12 seals were still shot at its sites in 2017.

John Robins of Scottish charity the Save Our Seals Fund, which previously campaigned for the US ban, has accused the Scottish Government of wasting a year and a half trying to evade the ban.

Anti-fish farming campaigner Don Staniford.

“By licensing seal shooting our government gives fish farmers in Scotland an unfair financial advantage over their American counterparts who invest large sums of money making their farms sea-mammal friendly,” Robins said.

“It makes me very angry that we need the American government to protect Scottish seals.”

Staniford, meanwhile, pointed out that some fish farm companies had largely stopped killing seals but others continued – and he accused the Scottish Government of “working behind the scenes in a desperate attempt to wriggle off the hook”.

But speaking after the story appeared in The Sunday Herald at the weekend, rural economy minister Fergus Ewing did not indicate that an outright ban on fish farms shooting seals was imminent.

“I’m very pleased that technology now, including the use of sonar devices, means that it is now proving possible to do this in [sic] increasing occasions, working with the sector in order to work towards a situation where licences for control of seals would no longer be necessary.”