NEW laws protecting seals in Scotland have brought about a tenfold decrease in the number of the animals shot over the past year, latest figures show.
The Scottish Government brought in a rigorous licensing scheme to protect seals after campaigners warned that more than 3,000 were being killed each year.
Fishermen attempting to protect fish farms from seals were largely blamed for the deaths.
New measures were introduced last year and for the first nine months of 2011, just 362 seals were shot.
This was less than a third of the permitted maximum that could be shot under licence for the year.
Environment secretary Richard Lochhead said: “Scotland’s seals are an iconic species and that’s why we introduced new measures through the Marine Act 2010 to give seals extra protection, including the creation of seal conservation areas and moves to increase protection at seal “haul-out” sites, [where the animals climb out of the water]. For the first time it was made illegal to shoot a seal unless a licence has been granted under very strict conditions. I’m pleased that the right balance between seal conservation and support for important wild fisheries and our fish farming industry is being struck.”
Licences for this year will be granted for a maximum of 1,100 seals to be shot, 15 per cent lower than the total allowed in 2011 of 1,340. About half of the licences granted are for fish farms and half for wild salmon rod and line or net fisheries. The measures are in place to control the removal of specific seals around fisheries and fish farm cages as a last resort. Before a licence will be granted, the applicant must show non-lethal alternatives have been considered, such as using predator nets and acoustic deterrents.
Alongside seal licensing, the Scottish Government has introduced new seal conservation areas – in the Western Isles, Northern Isles, Moray Firth and along the east coast.
Research in 2011 by the Special Committee on Seals found an increase in grey seal population in Scotland to 108,000 in 2010 – which is 90 per cent of the UK population. Common seals are estimated at about 20,400.
Libby Anderson, policy director for One Kind, which campaigned for the laws to protect seals, said: “Our position is and always will be that no seals should be shot.
“However, we were very pleased to work with MSPs at the time to create a licensing scheme that was quite rigorous.
“We do believe that this rigorous licensing scheme has improved matters and we welcome that they plan to reduce the maximum number that can be shot this year.”