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International Animal Rescue Saving animals from suffering around the world

UK seal slaughter provokes call for improved legislation to protect seals

A total of thirteen UK organisations [1] are calling for legislation to better protect seals following another slaughter of seals on the UK’s coast.

At the Point of Vastray (map) on the Island of Orkney, four Grey adult seals, all female and pregnant, and one juvenile have been found dead with gunshot injuries to their heads. The area was left covered in blood in what can only be described as an indiscriminate act of slaughter. The images of the scene are graphic in their detail [2]. A member of the public came across the terrible scene and reported it to Ross Flett, Director of Orkney Seal Rescue. The incident has now been reported to the local Police.

Mr Flett said: "Once again seals have been slaughtered indiscriminately. I have seen many incidents similar to this and sadly they are on the increase. In Orkney, this year, I have noticed an obvious decrease in the number of Common seals around our coastline and this is not the first indiscriminate shooting of Grey seals I have seen this year. These animals were clearly no threat to fishing equipment where they were shot. There were 4 pregnant females - so that’s 4 more grey seals that were killed because the pups didn’t even get the chance to be born. In the pupping season, they come into the shallow waters and it just makes them easy targets. It’s horrible, there’s absolutely no need for it."

Currently the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 (CSA) allows anyone with a high velocity rifle and an endorsement on their firearms certificate to shoot seals for the majority of the year. The CSA does limit the shooting of seals during their moulting and breeding periods (June 1-August 31 for Common seals and September 1-December 31 for Grey seals). However, shooting is still permitted either with a licence from the Scottish Executive or using the ’netsman’s defence’ that allows seals in the vicinity of fishing gear to be shot [3]. Apart from shooting under licence there is no requirement to report the number or species of animals shot.

The CSA has many shortcomings from both conservation and animal welfare perspectives and was described by one MP at the time as the ’Destruction of Seals Bill’ [4]. There are currently no estimates of the numbers of seals shot each year and no measures to prevent the depletion of local populations. Seals may also suffer a long death if injured but not killed through poor marksmanship. Nursing female Common seals may also be shot using the ’netsman’s defence’, leaving their pups to die of starvation. Recent news [5], from the Government funded Sea Mammal Research Unit also shows that the number of Common seals around some parts of the Scottish coastline have in fact declined by more than 30% since 1997.

Often it is claimed that the seals are the cause of the decline of fish stocks and damage to salmon fisheries but there is no proof that seals adversely affect the total numbers of fish around the UK coast. However Margaux Dodds of the Marine Connection comments "It is important to note that the species most frequently targeted for this reason are in fact common/harbour seals whose diet consists mainly of white fish not salmon, therefore their impact on salmon stocks is minimal". In 2002 BDMLR commissioned a report entitled ’Seal Fisheries Interactions’ [6] by Susan Wilson PhD, LLM. The report traces research and debate from the 1960s to the present from seal researchers and fisheries scientists from across the world and aims to dispel many of the myths surrounding the actions of seals and their impact of the commercial fishing industry around the UK.

Much loved and much maligned, the need for better protection for seals is clear. As well as preventing the senseless deaths seen in (the Orkney incident), seal populations in Britain are so important internationally that we have a duty to ensure their conservation.

[1] British Divers Marine Life Rescue, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), Marine Connection, Advocates for Animals, Seal Conservation Society, Tara Seal Research Centre, Save Our Seals Fund, Animal Concern, International Animal Rescue, Orkney Seal Rescue

[2] Images of the dead seals are available for use from this link : low res at this page, high res from Orkney Photographic. Contact Ken Amer on Tel: 01856 873574 or Mobile: 0708961780. Video available from Grampian Television. Contact Scott Mitchell: 01224 848848.

[3] The CSA allows the killing or attempted killing of any seal to prevent it from causing damage to a fishing net or fishing tackle, or any fish for the time being in the fishing net, provided that at the time the seal was in the vicinity of such net or tackle. However, neither actual proof of damage or that the damage would be serious is required and ’vicinity’ is not defined(see McGillivray, D. 1995. Seal Conservation legislation in the UK - past, present, future. International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, Vol 10 (1);19-51.

[4] John Pardoe MP, House of Commons Debates Vol.799 col.1723

[5] Call for shooting ban as seal numbers plummet by a third. The Independent on Sunday. 13 August 2006.

[6] Seal Fisheries Interactions report - download an electronic copy at this link -