THE Scottish Government has lost a long-running battle to keep secret the names of fish farms that shoot seals.
In two rulings yesterday, the Scottish Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, ordered ministers to identify the individual farms responsible for killing 185 seals in 2013 and 2014. She dismissed the Government’s argument that this could put staff and their families at risk from protesters.
Agnew’s decision was welcomed as a “landmark victory” by environmental campaigners, who are urging the public to boycott salmon from seal-shooting farms. The salmon farming industry stressed, however, that shooting was “always a last resort”.
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Salmon farmers, river fisheries and salmon netters are licensed to shoot seals to prevent them eating fish. Over the four years to 2014, they shot a total of 1,371 grey and harbour seals, according to figures from the Scottish Government.
For the last two years the Montrose-based salmon netting company, Usan Salmon Fisheries, has been targeted by animal right activists trying to prevent seals from being killed. Our sister paper, the Sunday Herald, revealed last month that police had sent three reports to the procurator fiscal accusing both sides of breaking the law.
Just under half of the seals killed between 2011 and 2014 – 634 – were shot by fish farms around the coast, though the number has been falling year on year. Campaigners argue that seals should be scared away or prevented from accessing fish rather than being shot.
Agnew first ordered the Scottish Government to name seal-shooting salmon farms in 2012. But after complaints from salmon netters and the fish farming industry, she reviewed her decision before again ordering the information to be released in 2013.
Information on individual farms for 2011 and 2012 was then published. But in 2014 the Government infuriated campaigners by again refusing to name the fish farms for public safety reasons, prompting further appeals to Agnew. In her two decisions yesterday, she has backed their arguments and has ordered the Scottish Government to release information on individual salmon farms covering 2013 and 2014 by August 21, 2015.
“Ministers have not provided any specific examples or evidence to support the view that there would be an increased threat to public safety if information about seal shootings carried out under licence is made known,” one of Agnew’s decisions concluded.
“Having given the issue careful thought, the commissioner is not satisfied that the ministers have demonstrated that disclosure of the information in itself would, or would be likely to, prejudice substantially public safety, despite being asked to explain in detail the nature of the harm they anticipated would follow disclosure of the seal shooting figures.”
In a statement, Agnew added that she “was required to consider whether the disclosure of information about seal shooting would, in itself, directly result in the harm claimed by ministers, not whether seal campaigners are likely to protest at salmon farms and fisheries”.
Don Staniford, director of the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture, which made the appeals to Agnew, claimed a major victory. “These decisions are a shot in the arm for freedom of information and a shot across the bows of the bloody Scottish salmon farming industry,” he said.
“Now the public will be able to boycott salmon from lethal salmon farms. It is shameful that the Scottish salmon farming industry continues to kill seals and shocking that supermarkets still source seal-unfriendly farmed salmon.”
John Robins from the Save Our Seals Fund said it was important for the public to know which salmon suppliers were killing seals so they could make ethical choices. “When you buy Scottish salmon you pay for bullets to shoot seals,” he said.
“This will also allow groups like ours to compare eyewitness reports of seal-shooting with the official Government figures which come direct from the shooters and are not monitored or checked in any way.”
Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation chief executive Scott Landsburgh said the number of seals shot had “declined dramatically” in recent years: “We have championed deterrence techniques that are designed to keep seals away from our fish, and shooting is always a last resort.”
The Scottish Government said it received Agnew’s decisions. “We are currently considering their terms,” said a spokeswoman.