In a damning decision to be published tomorrow, the Scottish Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, rejects ministers’ arguments for secrecy as “tenuous”. She says she is “disappointed” at the government’s failure to provide evidence in support of its claim that public safety would be put at risk.
Ministers now have to reveal the number of seals killed by fish farming companies at individual sites before 10 January. The only way they could avoid doing so is by appealing to the Court of Session on a point of law.
The Sunday Herald disclosed in September that the Scottish government was refusing to identify the fish farms that shot seals because of fears that direct action by protestors trying to save the seals could put shooters at risk.
This was angrily disputed by anti-fish-farming campaigners at the time, and has now been dismissed by Agnew. “The commissioner accepts that the killing of seals is an emotive subject, and one which could conceivably lead to direct action by protestors,” says her decision.
“However, in relation to a potential threat to public safety, the ministers have not provided any specific examples or evidence which would support their view that public safety would, or would be likely to be, threatened.”
Ministers had referred to previous protests against a Canadian seal cull, Japanese whaling and a Costa Rican boat cutting the fins off sharks. They also mentioned demonstrations against a proposed seal cull in Orkney more than 30 years ago.
But such examples are “tenuous and bear little relation to the issues or situations under consideration,” argues Agnew. She concludes that “ministers have failed to demonstrate a real risk or likelihood that the harm they anticipated was likely to occur.”
Her decision was welcomed by the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture, which had appealed against the government’s refusal to name the fish farms. “The public will now be able to avoid buying farmed salmon from farms where seals are killed needlessly,” said the alliance’s Don Staniford.
“Supermarkets should do the right the thing and announce a boycott from all salmon farms caught killing seals. Anyone buying farmed salmon from the killing farms has blood on their hands and should hang their head in shame.”
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 shooting, which is also carried out by anglers and netters, has faced fierce opposition from campaigners, who argue that it is cruel and unnecessary. Seals can be stopped from taking fish from farms by high-tension nets, they say.
John Robins from Save Our Seals Fund accused the Scottish government of siding with fish farms and netters to hide facts from the public. “If they have been honest salmon farmers and netters have nothing to fear,” he said.
“All we are going to do is compare the number of seals they claim to shoot with eyewitness reports of seal shooting. If these do not match up, the industry and the Scottish government will have a lot to answer for.”
The Scottish Salmon Producer’s Organisation accused activists of making “veiled threats” against the fish farming industry. “We remain concerned about the welfare of individuals who may be identified and targeted by pressure groups,” said the organisation’s chief executive, Scott Landsburgh.
“As farmers are legally required to protect the welfare of their stock and one rogue seal can kill thousands of fish, removal by anglers, netters and farmers is permitted as a last resort strictly under licence by government.”
The Scottish government confirmed it had received Agnew’s decision. “We are considering its terms,” said a spokeswoman. “Far fewer seals are being shot than in the past due to an unprecedented level of protection in Scotland.”
The report of the decision by the Scottish Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, is available to download here (377KB pdf).