MINISTERS have received a warning about the continued shooting of seals by fish farms as the US poses the threat of an export ban which could cost the Scottish economy £200 million a year.

New figures reveal that despite the salmon industry giving a "clear intention" to cut the number of seals shot to zero, fish farms and fisheries were continuing to kill them at a rate of over eight a month last year, under licence from the Scottish Government.

The details have angered protesters who are concerned that that instead of finding alternative ways to deal with seals, fish farms are continuing to be content to shoot to kill.

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The US is now requiring proof that its seafood imports are harvested in a way that minimises harm to marine mammals.

Later this year, the US is expected to release a country-by-country list of fisheries deemed acceptable and those deemed non-compliant.

And the US has given Scotland four years to comply with US standards.

But the Scottish Government is under increased pressure to stop the killing now.

Producers of farmed salmon are issued with licences which allow seals to be shot to protect fish stocks.

HeraldScotland:

Salmon farmers say they sometimes need to kill seals as a last resort to prevent them attacking nets and eating fish. However, campaigners, argue that better nets and 'seal-scarers' could eliminate the need for killing.

But 1600 seals have been killed under licence in the the six years to 2016, with nearly 100 shot last year.

The biggest killer of seals last year was major salmon producers Marine Harvest (Scotland) with 21 shootings, and another 18 were shot by the Moray Firth Seal Management Group, which is made up of salmon fishery boards.

Norwegian-owned Scottish Sea Farms which supplies to Marks and Spencer shot 12 and Cooke Aquaculture Scotland shot eight.

Meanwhile Grieg Seafood Hjaltland have stopped seal killings altogether having brought in new econets to protect the salmon and keep the mammals away.

A new rule agreed by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) bans the import of any fish that does not meet US standards, and it is illegal to intentionally kill or injure seals in any commercial US fishing operation.

An NOAA source said: We are right now comprising the list of foreign fisheries. No products will be banned during development of that list. Scotland has until 2021, to demonstrate that they have eliminated the intentional mortality or have the required procedures in place."

The Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture campaign group has previously raised concerns that not all have invested in special nets which would prevent the need to shoot seals and is concerned that the "shoot-to-kill policy" is continuing.

HeraldScotland:

Don Staniford, from the group said: "Salmon farmers should immediately hang up their guns and stop the needless slaughter of seals.

"The Scottish Government has 200 million reasons to abide by the US's zero tolerance for the killing of marine mammals. Each seal shot by salmon farmers could cost the Scottish economy around £2 million. The simplest and cheapest solution is to stop killing seals completely."

Mark Ruskell MSP, environment spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said: “The Scottish Government has irresponsibly allowed a US import ban on Scottish fisheries to be set in train that could cost over £200m a year to the farmed salmon sector alone.

"The choice is clear, either the Scottish Government does the responsible thing and bins the laws that allow the killing of seals in Scotland by fish farm operators and fishermen, or it lobbies Trump’s administration to weaken US environmental laws that protect marine mammals.

"The killing of seals is completely unnecessary and most people find it abhorrent that this practice still occurs in the 21st century. It is perfectly possible to prevent seals from attempting to eat farmed fish through deterrents rather than the bullet.”

Scott Landsburgh, chief executive of Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, said: “The Scottish salmon farming industry is fully aware of its responsibility to protect the welfare of the fish in its care; and of the need to work within the law when it comes to preventing damage from marine mammals which occasionally kill and damage farmed fish.

"It is our ambition to develop exclusion techniques that eliminate the need to shoot seals. However, existing methods are not yet 100% effective, and the law permits the shooting of seals in situations where exclusion methods have proven ineffective.

A spokesman for Marine Harvest said: "The industry is working hard to reduce the number of seals shot on salmon farms. Shooting is only ever carried out as a last resort when other methods of deterrence have failed to keep seals from attacking farmed stocks"