But this is angrily dismissed as “blatant scare-mongering” and a “ludicrous excuse” for official secrecy by animal welfare campaigners. They say they would act within the law, and would not do anything that would endanger fish farm workers.
“I would willingly put myself between a government-licensed killer and his intended victim, especially if that was a pregnant or nursing seal,” said David Scott from Sea Shepherd UK. “I would do no harm to the rifleman, nor would I break any laws in doing so - but I would protect the seal.”
Scottish ministers have licensed eight fish farming companies to shoot more than 300 seals since the start of 2011. Killing them is meant to be a last resort to prevent them from taking and eating salmon from underwater cages.
But the killing has faced fierce opposition from campaigners, who argue that it is cruel and unnecessary. Instead, seals can be stopped from taking fish by high-tension nets, they say.
In response to freedom of information requests, the Scottish government has released figures showing which fish farming companies have shot the most seals (see table below). But it has refused to name the individual farms where the shooting has taken place.
Campaigners have appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, who has launched an investigation. In a submission to Agnew last month, the Scottish government said there was a “strong likelihood” that campaign groups would take direct action “against individuals employed at sites where seals have been shot”.
The government claimed that at a meeting with the environment minister, Richard Lochhead, on 7 September 2011 Sea Shepherd’s David Scott made a “scarcely veiled threat” to prevent seal shooting. He provided “no specific details of what kind of action he had in mind, possibly for tactical reasons,” it alleged.
The government’s submission added: “In the past fringe animal rights groups have targeted individuals implicated, either directly or indirectly in shooting seals with verbal abuse, hate mail, unpleasant and noxious parcels, physical intimidation and even assault and have also caused property damage.
But according to Scott, Sea Shepherd would never countenance such actions. “This is blatant scaremongering with zero corroborative evidence and is a gross insult to an organisation which has never harmed a single person in its entire 35-year history,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“No representative of Sea Shepherd would ever permit harm to any person, no matter how vile their actions. Sea Shepherd always seeks to take preventive action within the law to protect marine wildlife.”
Scott said that he made “no veiled threats whatsoever”. He had accepted at the meeting with Lochhead that there was “no option to put volunteers between the riflemen and the seals on a permanent basis.”
Sea Shepherd is a radical conservation organisation, famous for using its boats to try and stop Japanese whalers. Its leader and founder, Paul Watson, is currently on the international police wanted list after he skipped bail in Germany in July to avoid what he said were “bogus” charges by Japan.
Don Staniford from the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture called for all salmon farms guilty of shooting seals to be named and shamed. “The Scottish government should be ashamed of itself for shielding Scotland's foreign-owned salmon farms from public scrutiny,” he said.
John Robins, secretary of the Save Our Seals Fund, argued that the public had a right to know seal shooting sites so that the numbers killed could be checked. He was also asking for the places where anglers and fish-netters were licenced to kill seals.
The Scottish government confirmed that it did not “routinely” disclose the sites issued with seal shooting licences. “This is due to the risks of individual fisheries or fish farms, or their employees, being identified and becoming the target of action by interest groups,” said a government spokesman.
The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation pointed out that there were more than 120,000 seals in Scotland. Millions of pounds were invested in non-lethal ways of keeping them away from fish farms, it said, and fewer than half of those shot were at farms, with the rest being killed by anglers and netters.
“Farmers are legally required to protect the welfare of their salmon,” added the organisation’s spokesman. “As one rogue seal can kill thousands of fish, removal by anglers, netsmen and farmers is permitted as a last resort strictly under licence by the Scottish government.”
The companies that shoot seals
Fish farming company / seals shot under licence in 2011 and up to April 2012The Scottish Salmon Company / 75
Hjaltland Seafarms / 65
Scottish Seafarms / 54
Meridian Salmon Group / 52
Marine Harvest / 43
Loch Duart / 10
Dawnfresh Farming / 7
Bound Skerries Seafoods / 4
Total / 310
source: Marine Scotland
The Scottish government's full submission on keeping seal shooting sites secret can be downloaded here (1.7MB Word document).