Scotland to stop fish farms killing seals to protect lucrative US export market

Dan Sanderson
Seals kill 500,000 farmed salmon in Scotland every year, according to the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation - Yuri Smityuk/TASS

Scottish fish farms will be stopped from shooting seals to avoid a ban on salmon exports to the United States.

Holyrood ministers are set to change the law to end a system where licences could be issued to kill seals to protect stocks, with the industry claiming 500,000 farmed salmon are killed by the mammals every year.

The move is designed to protect the lucrative export market for fish to the US, with Scottish salmon exports to America worth £179 million last year.

The US now requires all nations exporting fish to have equivalent marine protection measures to its own in place. As America does not permit the killing of seals, the existing system in Scotland would have potentially led to a US ban on its fish.

Almost 950 seals were legally shot in Scotland between 2011 and 2019, with fish farms licensed to kill the animals to prevent them from attacking and eating salmon in the farm cages.

“These amendments align with conservation measures taken by other countries, such as the USA, and an important consequence will be to ensure that Scotland can continue to export farmed salmon to the USA when new US legislative provisions come into force in 2022,” a Scottish Government spokesman said. 

“The US market is vital to the Scottish economy, supporting jobs, businesses and local communities across Scotland.”

Exporting nations are required to display compliance with the new US measures by May next year.

It emerged in 2018 that SNP ministers had unsuccessfully lobbied the US government for an exemption to the new rules. Officials argued seals were not shot “recklessly” and that shooting only occurred as a “last resort”.

However, animal welfare groups have been calling for an end to the licensing system for several years.

Mark Ruskell, an MSP and environment spokesman for the Scottish Greens, said: “The Scottish Government has been under enormous pressure for years to act on the wholesale slaughter of seals by industrial-scale fish farming.”

In England, the Marine Management Organisation has the powers to grant licenses to kill seals, although none have been issued in the last decade.

Fishermen south of the border do have the right to take "emergency measures" in relation to individual seals, to prevent damage to equipment or fish in limited circumstances. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is also considering its options in light of the US legislation.

Hamish Macdonell, director of strategic engagement for the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation said: “Scotland’s growing seal population directly kills half a million farmed salmon in attacks every year, with thousands more fish dying from stress. As a result, predator management is vital in protecting the welfare of our livestock.

“The US market is an extremely important one and the farmed salmon sector has been committed to ending the shooting of seals for some time. In recent years Scotland’s salmon farmers have invested millions of pounds in the introduction of new predator management tools including innovative net designs and seal blinds.”