Tough new regulations are to be introduced to curb the killing of seals by Scottish fish farmers, The Independent on Sunday has learned. The move comes as two headless seals – one heavily pregnant, the other a juvenile – were discovered last weekend on a beach on Skye.
A company that runs a nearby fish farm admitted last week it had shot two seals. Campaigners believe up to 5,000 seals are shot by fish industries in Scotland each year. The firm, Marine Harvest, said it did not know how or why the seals were decapitated.
The new rules will prevent fish farmers from shooting seals to protect their stocks for the first time during the closed season, according to a confidential draft of new legal guidelines.
Common and grey seals are supposed to be protected during their respective breeding seasons under the 1970 Conservation of Seals Act. However, the so-called "netsman's defence" – which permits fishermen to kill seals that threaten to damage their equipment – has been used by the growing numbers of fish farms that now occupy virtually every sea loch on the west coast of Scotland.
But draft guidelines to be published by the Scottish government next month will make clear for the first time that the defence does not apply to fish farms. The Act has been criticised by conservationists and the police for effectively permitting the shooting of seals by anyone with a reason to do so all year.
For common seals the closed season runs from 1 June to 31 August; for grey seals, it runs from 1 September to 31 December.
Scotland is home to the majority of the UK's seal population of about 180,000, and conservationists estimate that up to 5,000 seals are shot every year. This figure is disputed by the industry, but it is not required to record shootings. Seals were hunted until 1914, when numbers of grey seals in the UK were put at just 500. That species' numbers have since grown to an estimated 120,000, about a third of the total world population.
Andy Ottaway, of the Seal Preservation Action Group, said that, in the wake of the latest killings, the group would renew calls to supermarkets to sell only salmon reared by farms that use non-lethal methods to deter seals,such as acoustic deterrent devices, or scarers, and tensioned nets.
"It is ironic. We have public boycotts of Canadian products over the slaughter of seals, and we have the same slaughter on our own shores," Mr Ottaway said.
"We want the law changed from a licence to kill seals to one that protects our globally significant seal population. We believe that killing seals is too high a price to pay for Scottish salmon."
Chief Inspector Paul Eddington, wildlife crime co-ordinator for Northern Constabulary, said the Skye shootings had been investigated but there was no evidence a crime had been committed. "The legislation on this is woefully inadequate. The Conservation of Seals Act does not help us one bit in investigating these cases," he said.