Save Our Seals Fund invokes Marine Mammal Protection Act where Scottish law failed
DUMBARTON, Scotland––Believed to be allowing more seals to be killed than any nation without an actual seal hunt, Scotland may soon have to stop the mayhem or risk losing access to U.S. markets, under new U.S. trade rules.
Scottish salmon farmers sell more fish to the U.S. than to any other nation––and may shoot more seals than anyone in maritime commerce worldwide except for the sealers of Namibia and Atlantic Canada, whose seal hunts have been subdued since the European Union banned imports of seal productions in 2009.
Warned Save Our Seals Fund secretary John F. Robins on September 27, 2016, “All exports of fish from Scotland to the U.S. could end if the Scottish Government does not make it illegal for fish farmers and the fishing industry to kill seals.”
Scottish salmon may be excluded from the U.S. under new regulations meant to ensure that U.S. fishers and fish farmers are not having to compete with foreigners who do not have to meet environmental standards equivalent to the requirements of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1973.
The new U.S. regulations were published by the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration in the Congressional Record edition of August 15, 2016. They allow a five-year grace period for foreign fishers and fish farmers to adjust their production methods to meet the U.S. requirements.
“The new U.S. import regulations become law on January 1, 2017,” Robins explained in an open letter to members of the Scottish parliament, “but governments have until January 2021 to comply with the new rules.
“Government very confused”
“The Scottish government appears to be very confused over this issue,” Robins elaborated, “and currently is under the mistaken belief that it does not have to take any action and can leave it to individual salmon farmers to decide whether or not to continue killing seals.”
The new U.S. regulations will be enforced against all exporters from a nation found to be in violation of Marine Mammal Protection Act requirements, not just against particular companies.
U.S. acknowledged Save Our Seals campaign
In introducing the new trade rules, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service acknowledged having “received correspondence from 21 animal rights and animal welfare organizations and Save Our Seals Fund, respectively, urging it to take action to ban the importation of Canadian and Scottish aquaculture farmed salmon into the United States due to the intentional killing of seals, asserting such lethal deterrence is subject to the importation ban under the MMPA sections 101(a)(2) and 102(c)(3) for international fisheries.”
The correspondence persuaded the National Marine Fisheries Service to widen the scope of rules changes under discussion since 2008, initially in response to complaints from U.S. swordfishers about alleged unfair competition.
NOAA protects all marine mammals
The National Marine Fisheries Service in 2011 “decided that [the rules change] would be not limited in application to swordfish fisheries and would cover intentional, as well as incidental, killing and serious injury of marine mammals,” said the NOAA notice published in the Congressional Record.
In Scotland, summarized Robins, “The government gives fish farmers licenses to shoot seals. Shooting seals is much cheaper than humanely excluding them from fish farm cages. By allowing farmers to shoot seals, the Scottish government gives them a huge financial advantage over American fish farmers,” for whom killing marine mammals would be a criminal offense.
“Knickers in a twist”
Now, said Robins, “The Scottish Government has got its knickers in a twist. They simply do not realize that if they fail to make shooting seals a criminal offense,” at least by January 2022, “American customs officers will not let as much as a Scottish-caught pickled herring cross their border. Salmon farmers will lose well over £200 million a year in exports (worth about $260 million in U.S. dollars).
“Killing seals should have been banned decades ago,” Robins added. “I am disgusted that I have had to use a foreign government to get protection for Scottish seals.”
More than two decades
Recalled Robins, “For over two decades I have been asking the Scottish government to totally ban the shooting of seals at salmon farms and to make it compulsory for all salmon farms to employ high strength, tensioned predator exclusion nets (which are different from double cage nets) to keep seals well away from the cage nets holding the salmon. This is now all the more important,” having already been “the only way marine salmon farmers can meet their legal obligation to protect their stock from the attention of predators as required under the Animal Health & Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006.”
Campaigning almost alone against the Scottish salmon industry seal-shooting for more than 20 years, Robins and the Save Our Seals Fund had help in 2014-2015 from as many as 70 Sea Shepherd Conservation Society volunteers.
The Sea Shepherds documented seal shooting by the wild salmon netting company Usan Salmon Fisheries Ltd.
Charged Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson, “They shot more seals than all the Scottish fish farms put together prior to Sea Shepherd small boats and crews arriving in April 2014.”
Effective April 1, 2016 the Scottish government suspended shooting seals on the Caithness and Aberdeenshire/Moray coast, home of Usan Salmon Fisheries Ltd., after which the Sea Shepherds withdrew.
Conservation of Seals Act
Seals were nominally protected in Scottish waters by the 1970 Conservation of Seals Act. “In reality,” Robins charged, “the Conservation of Seals Act protected fishery and aquaculture interests from prosecution for shooting seals. Shooters did not need any special government permission or license to shoot seals and there was no requirement to report the number of seals killed. Seals could even be shot and killed during the breeding season, leaving newborn pups to starve.”
Robins remains the only person ever to win a prosecution under the Conservation of Seals Act.
“Won that case on a technicality”
“I won that case in Skye in 1989 on a technicality, in that the shooter used the wrong caliber of gun to kill seals,” Robins remembered in December 2006, after British Divers Marine Life Rescue lost an attempt to prosecute a Fife fisher.
That case “was thrown out due to the failure of the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 to determine what is meant by ‘vicinity’ when it gives fishermen permission to kill any seal they decide is in the vicinity of their fishing gear,” Robins said.
150,000 seals killed in 35 years
As many as 150,000 seals were killed by the Scottish fishing and fish farming industries before the Conservation of Seals Act was reinforced by the Animal Health & Welfare (Scotland) Act of 2006, which “makes it a criminal offence to fail to protect farmed fish from predator attack. The Animal Health & Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 finally recognizes that fish can suffer,” Robins said hopefully when the law took effect, “and we must ensure that the Act is fully enforced.”
But Robins was again disappointed.
“Killing seals not a crime” say cops
Assured by the Salmon & Freshwater Fisheries Department that any fish farmer who shot a seal during the summer months would be guilty of a criminal offense, Animal Concern and the Save Our Seals Fund, both headed by Robins, “put up a £1,000 reward for the successful prosecution of seal-shooting fish farmers,” Robins recounted in 2008, “only to be told by senior police officers that they did not regard this as a crime. We put up a £1,000 reward for the successful prosecution of a crime the police do not realize exists!”
In 2009, with the European Union ban on seal product imports pending, Robins wrote “I feel extremely two-faced complaining to the Canadian and Norwegian governments over their seal kills, when I know my own government allows a mass slaughter of seals around our coast. It is right for our politicians to condemn as cruel the clubbing to death of baby seals,” Robins acknowledged, “but it is hypocritical of them to do so without first addressing the law which allows seals pups in Scotland to suffer a far crueler death.
“For over 30 years factory fish farmers have used seals as scapegoats for their own bad practices and penny-pinching policies,” Robins charged, “which leave farmed salmon open to stressful attacks by seals and have allowed many millions of inferior factory farmed salmon into the natural environment.”
In 2015, Robins learned, through an appeal to the Scottish Freedom of Information Commissionaire, “that only 20% of salmon farms own proper predator exclusion nets and only 13% actually use them.”
Recent reports indicate that the numbers of seals shot by Scottish fishers and fish farmers have fallen, but as Robins points out, the official data comes entirely from self-reporting.
Nets more profitable than shooting
Ironically, installing predator exclusion nets instead of shooting seals has proved to be more profitable for at least one major Scottish salmon farming company.
Grieg Seafood in Shetland told the Sunday Herald in August 2015 that the number of seals it had shot had dropped significantly over the preceding two years because it was installing anti-predator nets.
“By autumn 2016, all of our sites will be fully protected by anti-predator nets,” said Grieg Seafood regional director Sigurd Pettersen.
Noted Robins, “Elsewhere it was reported that Grieg Seafood took this move in response to large financial losses after seals breached their cage nets, releasing large numbers of salmon. To be blunt, it appears the company decided to employ proper predator exclusion nets for financial reasons and not because anyone persuaded them to stop shooting seals.”