It is currently rather miserable weather and not the time that many humans will take to the beach. Happily this coincides with the grey seal “pupping” season where they haul out onto beaches and give birth to fuzzy little 14 kilogram pups. Most seal pupping areas impose protections measures at this time to stop the public getting too close (remember, never approach a stranded seal pup). Luckily some places, like the Isle of May, have remote cameras which was what I spent my time watching during a recent stint of volunteer work. It was a pretty grim sight in all honesty, with bedraggled seal pups laying around helplessly whilst others had died and were being eaten by gulls. Not glamorous work but it made for some interesting viewing.
Grey seals are doing relatively well although the population is difficult to measure, even with thermal imaging and remote cameras. Experts believe that there has been around a 7% increase in population year on year since 1999 when the population was around 100,000, with 36% living around the UK, mainly in Scotland. So on the face of it, all is well in the seal community.
However the controversy surrounding the shooting of seals rumbles on, more so now given that seals are still being shot during the breeding season which could potentially leave pups stranded. With the Sea Shepherd activist group joining the fray relatively recently this is only going to become more of an issue. I touched on Sea Shepherds before but to summarise: Sea Shepherds are a big conservation group focusing on illegal activity at sea, gaining fame for the longest chase in maritime history when they tracked an illegal fishing ship for 10,000 miles before the crew deliberately sunk it to avoid prosecution. They have taken it upon themselves to stop illegal activity at sea where no authority really has jurisdiction. What they do is often illegal but they argue that they break the law to stop others breaking the law in a worse manner. Kind of like Batman.
Anyway back to the tale. Sea Shepherds are now quite active in the UK salmon fisheries industry to try and prevent seal shootings. Despite the grey seal being a protected species it is legal to shoot a seal if the fisheries have, “tried all other preventative measures” and shooting can only be carried out by a licensed marksman. Given the loose, and entirely unenforceable nature of this law, it is widely suspected that people are becoming a little trigger happy around salmon fisheries leading to many seal deaths and injuries. The problems are numerous, with many people in the salmon industry freely admitting to killing more seals than they should but not being arrested or fined for doing so. The problems aren’t solely with the salmon farms though, wild salmon fisheries are shooting the seals as well. This leads to controversy as people often choose “wild salmon” believing it to be environmentally friendly. Recent evidence has shown that some wild fisheries are illegally placing nets for longer than is allowed, leading to some nasty confrontations with the Sea Shepherds and various police forces who remove the nets. Unsurprisingly, leaving nets full of salmon for several days is attracting seals which are then shot by salmon fisheries who think the seals are “stealing” their catch. They recently announced that they would stop carrying weapons on their boats but this seems to have been swiftly forgotten as seal shootings are still occurring.
Many will argue that there is no problem in shooting the seals, after all only around 120 were “officially” killed last year though seal conservation groups argue that number is much closer to 2000, more than likely both sides are being liberal with their figures. The grey seal population is high and a few shootings will not endanger the population, or so goes the statement for the defence. This is true but it will imbalance many ecosystems as local populations suffer high mortality rates leading to increases in other species. Equally, just because there are a lot of seals doesn’t mean that shooting them is acceptable. Can you imagine if we applied the same logic to humans?
To put the seal population into perspective, there are significantly less grey seals than African elephants and yet shooting an elephant is regarded as a travesty whereas seals are totally ignored.
It is seen as a difficult moral issue. A seal breaking into a salmon farm is directly impacting someone’s way of life and reducing how much money they are making. A single fish farm in Shetland lost over £3 million in one year due to seals, despite shooting 36 of them. Equally, putting a stockpile of food in front of a carnivore and allowing it a way in was never exactly a good plan was it? It’s not as if the seals are seeking out salmon farms and fisheries, rather they are being built in areas where seals are already living.
There is in fact a solution and it is pretty dull and simple. Better nets and protection measures. The Hjatland fish farm in Shetland, alluded to above, realised that if they are losing £3 million of fish despite shooting 36 seals then there must be a problem. They implemented anti-predator nets to keep seals out, resulting in an 82% drop in the number of seals which were shot and also saved the company from losing so much produce. Due to schemes like this the “official” seal shootings are declining. However, an anti-predator net will likely cost more than a shotgun meaning that if farms can’t afford the initial outlay then they may well carry on killing which would be a thoroughly unnecessary and financially misguided thing to do.
Such is the seriousness of the problem there is currently a £5000 reward for anyone whose photo or video evidence leads to convictions of people illegally shooting seals. I can’t imagine a seal shooter being very happy about being recorded, so maybe this is only something to be doing if you have a large zoom lens, or can run very quickly I would advise?