The Sunday Herald can reveal that she has ordered the government to name the individual fish farms by 7 May. Its argument that identifying the farms would put those shooting the seals at increased risk of attacks by animal rights campaigners was not “compelling”, she concluded.
Agnew’s decision has been warmly welcomed by environmental and animal welfare groups, but attacked by the fish farming industry for endangering public safety. The Scottish government said it was “disappointed” but would have to comply.
According to official figures, fish farmers shot 449 seals in 2011 and 2012 in order to try and prevent them from eating salmon. A further 443 were killed around the coast by salmon netting companies and river fisheries.
The Scottish government refused to name the specific fish farms responsible for the shooting last year, claiming that direct action by protestors would put shooters at risk. In December, its arguments were dismissed as “tenuous” by Agnew, the Scottish Information Commissioner.
But in an unprecedented move in January, she reopened her investigation because of new evidence from salmon netting companies. They claimed to have received threats from animal welfare groups, including a death threat.
Now, however, Agnew has concluded that the evidence was not enough to deter her from enforcing her original decision. It did not demonstrate that “disclosure of the information would, or would be likely to, prejudice substantially public safety,” she said.
“This conclusion was not reached lightly. The Commissioner recognises there is a risk but the evidence does not provide a compelling argument that the threats are any more likely to occur or be acted upon because of the information being disclosed.”
Agnew pointed out that people who had made threats in the past were aware who shot seals and where. “Retrospective information is unlikely to provide sufficient detail for threats to be the result of targeted action,” she added. “Withholding it will not stop events such as have already been reported.”
The names of the fish farms licensed to shoot seals were requested by Don Staniford, from the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture. “The Scottish government has shot itself in the foot by fighting information disclosure,” he said.
Agnew had seen through “baseless fear-mongering” and should be applauded for rejecting “government censorship”, he argued. He called on fish farmers to stop shooting seals, and to install anti-predator nets to deter them instead.
According to the Scottish government, only one in five of Scotland’s 215 active fish farms have predator nets. But it says it hasn’t insisted on them because they can trap and kill other animals like otters and dolphins.
Libby Anderson, the policy director of the animal welfare group, OneKind, repudiated any direct action against individuals. “But animal welfare groups in Scotland are not known for carrying weapons, unlike licensed seal shooters,” she said.
“Public concern about the extent and nature of seal shooting is both justified and legitimate, and Scottish ministers have not advanced any evidence to convince the Commissioner of a real risk to public safety if this information is released.”
But Scott Landsburgh, the chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers' Organisation, pointed out that Agnew had recognised that there was a risk. “Clearly, satisfying campaigners and achieving headlines is more important than public safety,” he said.
“We stand with salmon netters in our commitment to exclude and deter seals and to shoot only when all other measures fail. This is entirely legal and necessary to protect fish welfare.”
He added: “When campaigners get their facts right about the deterrent measures used and the most effective approaches under different local circumstances, they will perhaps recognise we can have sensible reporting about the success of seal management and the falling numbers of seals shot.”
The Scottish government reiterated the “potential risk to public safety” from naming fish farms. “That risk is something that has now been acknowledged by the Scottish Information Commissioner, even though her final decision is to enforce the release of the information,” said a government spokeswoman.
“While we are disappointed by that decision, we must release the information by the date given - May 7th.”
A full copy of Rosemary Agnew's latest ruling on the fish farms that shoot seals can be downloaded here (70KB pdf). The information was released by the Scottish government on 7 May 2013 and spreadsheets made available here and here. It was reported in the Shetland News, The Daily Mail and the Press and Journal, as well as being critically analysed by Don Staniford.