Seals by Mark Carter
The British Isles is home to important populations of both common and grey seals. These seals have been part of our culture throughout history, from hunting them to being included in mythology.
Even today few tourist books about our coastline and coastal features are complete without a
picture or two of seals, few coastal towns, where seals still exist, would be complete without their
boat trips to see them.
Throughout millennia people and seals have co-existed, sustainably, it is only with our massive
population increase and industrial scale appetite that nature’s balance becomes disrupted. Nowhere
more so is it adequately displayed than within the seal/human interactions.
Seals are seen as scapegoats, they have even been blamed for the decline within our fisheries and
fish, they are seen as a menace to salmon anglers and a curse to fin fish aquaculture; the term, “The
only good seal, is a dead seal” has been quoted on numerous occasions.
As with mythology, stories grow and change over time, what are the facts and are seals culprits in
need of being shot, or convenient excuses for our own miss-management of our seas?
• Most of our Global commercial fisheries are in decline, overfishing is a known cause.
• There has been a dramatic decline in common seals in the UK.
• There has been a marked change in the reproduction rates of grey seals, so much so that the
modelling techniques used to count greys has had to be changed to take into account the
stable or slowly increasing rate of reproduction.
• Seals are shot regularly by; Salmon farmers, fishermen, salmon netsmen, & salmon anglers.
In the past very little has been known about seals and their lifestyles. In the UK grey seals were almost hunted to extinction at the end on the 19th Century. The hunting of the “White Coats”, young
seals only a few weeks old were still being commercially hunted in the 1960’s.
The government has set up a seal counting/study programme through the National Environmental
Research Council, and the results via the Special Committee on Seals can be viewed online at http://www.smru.st-andrews.ac.uk/pageset.aspx?psr=411
Seals are known to be opportunistic feeders, but on the whole they do not eat the same fish that
fishermen commercially target. Seals are very partial to sand eels when they are present. The latestscientific studies show that very low numbers of seals actually attack fisheries or installations,
slightly over 1% during one study on the east coast of Scotland. In addition to this, these “specialist”
feeders can be identified.
Seals are known to travel elsewhere so shooting a whole colony may not get the specialist feeder,
the one that was causing a problem. Acoustic deterrents in rivers have been found to massively
reduce the specialist feeders, by as much as 50% or more.
Salmon and other fin fish farms could be positioned away from known seal haul-outs, areas where
seals need, as part of their lifecycle to get out of the water; giving birth, feeding pups, moulting,
nesting and socialising. Salmon farms could install double skinned anti-predator nets, and if fitted
with the same mesh dimensions no additional species need be trapped; these two “good practice” measures would all but eliminate the need to shoot seals.
Technology and Law
We know have the knowledge and technology, even the law to stop this unnecessary, unwanted,and often inhumane
method of preventing seal damage to our fisheries yet still even under the new
Marine Acts we allow for the shooting and harassment of a dwindling common seal population,
and a just about stable grey seal population, even while females are pregnant or feeding their pups;
all because bullets are cheaper and the commercial industries shout the loudest, those with most
The FutureCurrently the future for British seals looks bleak, unless the current situation changes. The wildlife
tourist industry has the potential to suffer; seals pictured in glossy tourist brochures might
say, “Whet we used to see” or they could even be placed into history books, over the top comment,
possibly; but local extinctions are a very real possibility.
The tourist industry has been very slow in protecting its lucrative market, when questioned, one
response simply used a “cut and pasted” section of the government website, one that is very much contested.
What fish we eat makes a difference, was it from a “real” sustainable source, not just a “green”
label, were seals shot during its production; please ask for Seal Friendly Salmon and encourage your
Supermarkets not to buy salmon where seals have been shot during its production.
People power works; a massive success in the Canadian seal hunts took place in Europe recently,
when the EC banned the imports of seal products. The UK governments may tell you that there is
not a “seal cull” going on in this country; but with the licensing of nearly 1400 seals to be shot inScotland and repeated calls from fishermen for a cull…what do you think?
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If any ones not happy for us to use their seal photos, let us know & we’ll remove it. We realize not all the seal photos are of seals in Scotland, these have been added by our fans and as we are aware of the plight of the Harp Seals in Canada and the Namibian Cape Fur Seals plus groups working to save these species are supporting us so we return the favour by including these and others. We encourage you to discover more about seals, we’ve plenty of links on seal identification if you need help identifying them.