Scotland’s salmon farming industry will lose its £200 million export market to the US if it persists in shooting seals, according to the US government.

A senior US fisheries official has told the Sunday Herald that countries that want to keep exporting fish to the US have to show that their products “are not associated with a fishery in which intentional killing or serious injury of a marine mammal is allowed.”

The warning comes as new official figures reveal that fish farms in Scotland have been shooting seven or eight seals a month this year, despite the industry’s promise to cut the killing to zero.

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The Sunday Herald is today naming the six fish farming companies that shot 23 seals under licence from the Scottish Government in the first three months of 2016. Ten seals were shot by Scottish Sea Farms in Shetland, Orkney, Ross-shire and Argyll.

Marine Harvest shot six seals in Skye, Ross-shire and Argyll, and another four were shot by Loch Duart Limited in the Sound of Harris. Three other companies shot one seal each: Scottish Salmon Company, Wester Ross Fisheries and Balta Island Seafare.

Seals are killed to prevent them from eating fish. They also used to be shot by wild salmon netters, but their fishing rights have been curbed by new government conservation regulations.

The latest returns to the Scottish Government show that between January and March this year only one seal was shot by a business other than fish farms. It was killed by Lochmaddy Hotel on North Uist, which specialises in angling.

Last weekend the Sunday Herald launched a campaign to stop the slaughter of seals. We reported on a scientific study showing that hundreds of seals had been shot since 2011 when they were pregnant or feeding young, leaving pups to starve to death.

But if fish farms carry on shooting seals, it could harm their profits as well as animal welfare. Their lucrative US export market, worth £213 million in 2014, could be at risk.

A new legislative rule agreed by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) last month will prohibit the import of any fish that doesn’t meet US standards. It is illegal to intentionally kill or injure seals in any commercial US fishing operation.

“This rule requires harvesting nations to demonstrate that they prohibit the intentional mortality or serious injury of marine mammals in the course of commercial fishing operations,” said John Henderschedt, director of NOAA Fisheries Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection.

Countries must have “procedures to reliably certify that exports of fish and fish products to the United States are not associated with a fishery in which intentional killing or serious injury of a marine mammal is allowed,” he added. “The rule establishes a five-year exemption period to allow foreign harvesting nations time to develop, as appropriate, regulatory programs comparable in effectiveness to US programs. NOAA does not prejudge any nation's or fisheries' current measures or ability to comply to this rule.”

Campaigners are calling for fish farms to use non-lethal methods of controlling seals, such as anti-predator nets. “Scotland's trigger-happy salmon farmers have not slowed down at all on their seal-killing spree during 2016,” said Don Staniford, from the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture.

“These damning figures blow out of the water the industry's claim of 'getting to zero'. Scottish salmon farmers could get to zero in a flash – simply stop shooting seals and start installing predator nets.”

John Robins of Save Our Seals Fund pointed out that seal shooting was self-reported by the industry without any independent monitoring. “Salmon farmers have got away with slaughtering seals for over 40 years,” he said. “Unless it is made illegal to kill seals that slaughter will not stop.”

The Scottish animal welfare charity, OneKind, was “deeply disappointed” by the number of seals shot this year. “These animals are simply trying to feed themselves and can’t be expected to steer clear of fish farms that have been placed within their habitat,” said director Harry Huyton.

"The industry’s promise to reduce killings to zero is welcome, but when there are non-lethal measures available to fish farms, progress towards this goal could and should be a lot faster.”

The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, which represents the fish farming industry, reiterated its intention to reduce the number of seals shot to zero. “The Scottish salmon farming industry is acutely aware of its responsibility to both its fish welfare and the welfare of marine mammals which live alongside farms,” said chief executive, Scott Landsburgh.

“However, from time to time seals attack fish and pens,” he added. “It is our ambition to develop enough techniques throughout the whole industry to avoid the need to shoot seals.”

On the new US fish import rule, Landsburgh stated: “Farmers act under licence in line with Scottish legislation and it is our expectation that this will align with the proposed US requirements.”

Fish farm companies all stressed their commitment to cut seal deaths. Scottish Sea Farms said it had reduced “lethal interactions” with seals 50 per cent a year since 2014. It had invested over £1 million in anti-predator nets, and was using acoustic devices to keep seals away from salmon cages where possible.

“This is a significant spend that shows our determination to find alternative methods to protect our stock and eliminate the need for last resort control,” said the company’s head of fish health, Ralph Bickerdike.

Steve Bracken, business support manager at Marine Harvest, said: “The number of seals shot has substantially reduced but we are aware more work needs to be done to achieve the goal of no seal shooting.”

Andy Bing, sales director for Loch Duart Limited said: “Loch Duart has a positive story to tell about new investment in ‘full box’ predator nets and acoustic deterrents, moving towards non-lethal solutions.”

The Scottish Salmon Company said it was committed to using new technologies and deterrent systems in line with industry best practice. “Our intention as a company and as part of the wider Scottish aquaculture industry is to reach zero,” said a spokeswoman.

Wester Ross Fisheries declined to comment. Balta Island Seafare and Lochmaddy Hotel did not respond to requests to comment.

The Scottish Government pointed out that it had ended the unregulated shooting of seals, resulting in a 65 per cent reduction in seals shot under licence between 2011 and 2015.

“If granted, seal licences will authorise shooting of a limited number of seals as a last resort within an area and for a period specified in the licence,” said a government spokesman. “The shooting must be undertaken by a marksman with appropriate skills and experience.”

TABLE: The fish farms that shot seals

Company / fish farm / seals shot (Jan-March 2016)

Scottish Sea Farms / Slocka, Ronas Voe, Shetland / 3 Scottish Sea Farms / Bight of Bellister, Dury Voe, Shetland / 2 Scottish Sea Farms / Shapinsay, Orkney / 2 Scottish Sea Farms / Vidlin North, Shetland / 1 Scottish Sea Farms / Kishorn West, Ross-shire / 1 Scottish Sea Farms / Loch Spelve, Argyll / 1 Marine Harvest, Isle Ewe, Ross-shire / 2 Marine Harvest / Eilean Grianain, Argyll / 1 Marine Harvest / Torridon, Strathcarron / 1 Marine Harvest / Greshornish, Isle of Skye / 1 Marine Harvest / Maol Ban, Isle of Skye / 1 Loch Duart / Sound of Harris / 4 The Scottish Salmon Company / Taranaish, Isle of Lewis / 1 North and North West Salmon Management Group/ Wester Ross Fisheries / 1 Balta Island Seafare / Swarta Skerry, Shetland / 1

Total / 23

source: Scottish Government (http://www.gov.scot/Topics/marine/Licensing/SealLicensing/Licences2016)