Frustrated by the Scottish Government’s refusal to tighten up regulations on seal slaughter, campaigners tried to pressure the big buyers they said “could stop this shooting overnight”.
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However, both Sainsbury’s and Tesco – two of the main stockists of Scottish farmed salmon – said they planned to keep their current supply arrangements in place.
Animal rights activists were angered recently when it emerged that the Scottish Government granted licences permitting fish farms and other organisations to shoot almost 1300 seals this year, leaving the pups of new mothers to starve during the breeding season.
The Marine (Scotland) Act allows the fishing industry to kill seals “as a last resort”, but campaigners argue that many are seeking licences to do so simply because it is a more cost-effective practice than using non-lethal measures.
They want to see farmers being forced to prove that double tension nets and acoustic deterrents have failed before they are allowed to kill the animals.
So far 65 applicants have been given licences, and more are likely to be granted in future. Of the major contenders in Thursday’s Scottish Parliament election, only the Greens have come out in opposition to the licensing regime.
David Scott, a spokesman for pressure group Seal Scotland, said frustrated members had shifted focus from Holyrood to target supermarkets directly.
Writing on behalf of his organisation, which has more than 5000 supporters on its Facebook page, he said the decision to grant licences so easily risks “creating a ridiculously self-fulfilling prophecy and permitting the needless killing of seals”, and that market pressure would force suppliers to find non-lethal means to deter them.
Though he has praised Sainsbury’s for working with activists opposed to seal slaughter, Mr Scott wrote to management this month to request that the firm severs its contracts with seal-killing fish farms.
If they don’t, he suggested, “the first graphic images of shot seals to be obtained and distributed to the press are likely to turn this into a cause celebre which will impact on us all”.
Mr Scott added: “We cannot find a commercial negative to this approach. Any argument from fish farms that predator-proof cages are too costly would suggest that they are unwilling to make the sort of capital investment that we are certain is the minimum requirement to ensure that they are still going to be credible – and profitable – suppliers of Sainsbury’s when their supply contracts come up for renewal.”
However, a spokesman for Sainsbury’s said that while the firm was committed to improving non-lethal protection for fish farms, it would not boycott those that do shoot seals.
Referring to a partnership with the Seal Protection Action Group, RSPCA, Freedom Foods and St Andrews University’s sea mammal research unit, he added: “Our ultimate goal in working as part of this ground-breaking group is to eliminate any need to shoot seals on farms supplying our salmon. Our suppliers only take this action as an absolute last resort if the seals pose a threat to fish welfare and/or stock containment.”
Tesco maintained the issue of seal shooting was for the Scottish Government and salmon industry to sort out.
A spokeswoman said: “We’re proud to support the Scottish fishing industry and are committed to responsible fishing and animal welfare. We work closely with our suppliers to ensure they meet industry and Government standards.
The Scottish Government stated last month that it assesses all farms individually before granting licences to ensure that non-lethal measures are being taken. The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) said the overall seal population was growing in the Scotland, and that the number covered by licences was less than 1% of the total.
Chief executive Scott Landsburgh said: “The emphasis is on deterring predators: all exclusion methods in the industry code of practice, which was developed with the support of seal experts, are explored.
“However, one persistent rogue seal can kill thousands of salmon. Farmers are legally required to protect the welfare of their fish. Shooting is only considered as a last resort in accordance with the law.”