BOTH sides in Scotland's escalating seal-shooting wars could face charges after a series of dramatic confrontations between salmon fishermen and animal rights activists on cliffs and beaches along the north and east coasts.
Police have revealed that they have sent reports to the procurator fiscal about three recent incidents involving members of Montrose-based Usan Salmon Fisheries and the international environmental group, Sea Shepherd. The company has been shooting seals to prevent them eating salmon caught in nets, while the activists have been trying to protect the seals.
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One incident on May 19 in Gamrie Bay, near Gardenstown in Aberdeenshire, is understood to involve allegations of the killing of legally protected seabirds. A second incident in the same area on June 12 concerned an alleged breach of the peace.
The third incident was on June 10 at Murkle Bay, near Castletown in Caithness, and involved alleged reckless conduct. According to police sources, both the salmon company and Sea Shepherd made complaints against each other, and both were the subjects of reports to the procurator fiscal.
On another occasion on June 2 at the village of Crovie on Gamrie Bay police firearms officers attended and were seen to take possession of a rifle and ammunition while a complaint was investigated. The rifle was returned and "no criminality" was found.
For the second year running, Sea Shepherd is running a summer-long campaign to defend seals in northeast Scotland. It has mobilised three boats and around 80 volunteers from 12 countries who have been monitoring and filming the shooters, sometimes putting themselves in front of seals.
They say they have filmed three seals being legally shot in Gamrie Bay, and believe a fourth was also shot there. In Murkle Bay, they say they filmed two seals being legally shot, and believe a further two were shot off camera.
Three short videos released by Sea Shepherd show the sea turning red after two seals were shot, as well as a seal killed by a possible bullet wound to the head. The group is understood to have provided the police with over 300 gigabytes of high-definition film footage.
The Sunday Herald has seen an additional film from the Hunt Saboteurs Association, which is running a parallel operation around
Montrose, claiming to show a guillemot trapped in a salmon net being killed. Usan staff have also been extensively filming activists filming them, though none of their footage has been publicly
The family-run fishing firm, which trades as Scottish Wild Salmon Company, has repeatedly refused to talk to the media. It has a licence from the Scottish Government to shoot seals as a last resort to protect its salmon
netting business. It has previously criticised animal campaigners' tactics, and has been filmed describing them as "environmental terrorists".
One of Usan's directors, David Pullar, was contacted by the Sunday Herald via telephone on Friday. "We're making no statements whatsoever," he said.
"We're sick to the back teeth of being misrepresented. Believe any of the propaganda if you want to." When asked about police involvement, he added: "Things are with the police and you should speak to them."
When asked about claims that Usan had killed seabirds, he said: "Absolute nonsense. We have never damaged any seabirds. We're not going to say any more about it, OK?"
But Rob Read, the Sea Shepherd skipper who has been co-ordinating its seal defence campaign, criticised the salmon company. Trapping salmon in nets provided an irresistible temptation for seals, he said.
"If you put a bag of sweeties before a child, they are going to go for it. It's an easy meal for them. It's the fishermen who are causing the problem."
Fishermen should accept occasional losses to seals, Read argued, and market their products at a premium for being "seal-friendly". They weren't making enough use of acoustic methods to scare seals away from nets, he alleged.
He pointed out that just because a seal was in the vicinity of salmon nets didn't mean it was bound to eat the salmon. Post-mortems suggested that salmon were only a small proportion of their diet, he claimed.
Read accused the Scottish Government of failing to monitor the seals shot under the licences it granted. "It's a situation open to huge abuse," he said.
"That's why we are monitoring it."
Seal shooting was damaging Scotland's image as a haven for wildlife and harming tourism, he contended. Sea Shepherd is offering a £7,500 reward for information, photographic or video evidence which directly leads to the successful prosecution of any individuals or companies for deliberately and illegally killing seals or other endangered marine wildlife around the UK coast.
The Police Scotland superintendent co-ordinating responses to seal-shooting incidents, Graeme Murdoch, stressed that these were "emotive issues" which the police approached with objectivity and independence. "Police Scotland is acutely aware that tensions and potential conflict can arise when commercial and environmental interests are seen to be at odds with each other," he said.
"The role of the police is to
investigate allegations of crime, to maintain public order and to protect the rights and lawful activities of all individuals and groups. We will enforce the law in a fair and proportionate way, but we are also actively involved in direct communication with parties on all sides of these issues in order to provide guidance, discourage conflict and to minimise disruption to communities."
John Robins, an animal rights campaigner from the Save Our Seals Fund, has written to Scottish Environment Minister, Dr Aileen McLeod, urging a review of seal-shooting licences in the light of the new video evidence. The seals being shot weren't apparently interfering with salmon nets, he
"It is sickening to see seals being shot for no good reason," he said. "If the seals shot at the netting stations were female common seals, it is likely that their new-born pups will now starve to death."
He added: "I've asked the Scottish Government to fully investigate the shootings at the salmon nets as the protocol required under the seal licensing scheme does not appear to have been followed."
The Scottish Government
maintained that seals were better protected than they had ever been. According to returns from shooters, the number of seals shot had fallen from 459 in 2011 to 205 in 2014.
"Since 2011, it has been illegal in Scotland to shoot a seal except as a last resort under strict licensing conditions, and the number of seals shot under licence has more than halved," said a Government spokeswoman.
"It is an offence to breach any of the seal licence conditions. If members of the public observe someone shooting seals and are concerned that it may be illegal they should contact the local police who can investigate the circumstances."
She added: "Our system strikes the balance between protecting seals and supporting our farmed and wild salmon industries. The vast majority of seals travel to feeding grounds at sea. However, a few individuals repeatedly target migrating fish entering freshwater river fisheries and coastal nets, or attack stocks in fish farms."
Licences were needed to control these specific seals "as a last resort measure after non-lethal alternatives have failed", the spokeswoman said. "Regular monitoring ensures the scheme does not adversely affect seal conservation."