Internal documents show that officials moved rapidly to release research suggesting that cannibal seals were to blame for causing the lethal spiral lacerations, rather than ships’ propellers. They planned to tip the shipping industry off about the research ahead of environmental groups, saying it required “careful handling”.
At least a hundred seals have been killed by corkscrew injuries in Scotland since 2009, most of them in the firths of Forth and Tay. Government scientists initially attributed the injuries to seals getting caught in ducted propellers widely used by offshore industries.
But in December researchers witnessed an adult male grey seal in the Firth of Forth attacking grey seal pups, leaving them with distinctive corkscrew injuries. Documents released by the Scottish Government under freedom of information law show that after two meetings in January, publication of the evidence was fast-tracked, leading to its release on 4 February.
In a confidential memo to the Environment Minister, Richard Lochhead, on 30 January, a senior official with Marine Scotland, Ian Walker, recommended immediate publication “in order to allow developers to adjust their proposals in light of its findings”.
Walker was anxious about the impact of the new research. “The early publication of this report and its consequences for developers require careful handling,” he said.
According to a meeting on 29 January, another government official was going to bring the matter to the attention of the UK Chamber of Shipping at a meeting on 2 February. Environmental groups, however, were not to be told until the report was published two days later.
The minutes make clear that scientists thought that the new research did not rule out the possibility that some injuries were still caused by propellers. There was no evidence to date that grey seals had predated on harbour seals, numbers of which have fallen dramatically in some areas.
The 29 January meeting concluded by outlining further research. Scientists had “been asked to draft revised research plans to link grey seal predation to harbour seals and consider potential impacts on local harbour seal declines,” it said.
Whale and Dolphin Conservation, which has led concerns about corkscrew seal deaths, described the revelations as worrying. “The tone of the advice to ministers, and speed with which it was delivered, suggests that helping industry is the government’s prime concern, rather than protecting Scotland's precious wildlife,” said the group’s Northeast Atlantic programme manager, Sarah Dolman.
“Officials seem more anxious to keep the shipping and renewables industry sweet, than to enact precaution and ensure that all possible causes of seal deaths are minimised.”
It was still unclear what was killing harbour seals, she argued. “The Scottish Government is actively looking to blame grey seals without analysis and presentation of all the evidence and has already let industries completely off the hook.”
According to the Scottish Government, the findings of the research were released as quickly as possible to all parties on the same day. “The latest scientific research provides clear video evidence in support of grey seal predation as a cause of spiral seal deaths,” said a spokesman.
“In contrast, the possibility of these deaths being caused by ship propellers remains theoretical at present. Scottish Government have an obligation to inform all stakeholders of the best science available but will continue to investigate both aspects of this issue.”
David Balston, director of policy at the UK Chamber of Shipping, said they were informed of the report’s conclusions on 4 February “at the same time as everyone else”.
He added: “I do wish these groups would engage with us, as we have repeatedly requested, instead of making disingenuous and inaccurate allegations in the media.”
Documents released by the Scottish Government under freedom of information law can be downloaded here: meeting on 8 January 2015, meeting on 29 January 2015 and advice to ministers on 30 January 2015.