A CRUCIAL forum for developing policy on seals has been abandoned as pressure grows to stop the mammals being shot in Scotland. The Scottish Seals Forum, set up by Scottish Ministers in 2002, has failed to hold a single meeting in the last six years, prompting campaigners to question the government’s commitment to protecting seals.

The Sunday Herald has launched a campaign to stop the slaughter of seals. Last weekend we revealed that Scotland’s salmon farming industry would lose its biggest £200 million export market to the US if it carried on shooting seals.

Yet salmon farmers were still shooting seven or eight seals a month earlier this year. We named the six fish farming companies that shot 23 seals under licence from the Scottish Government in the first three months of 2016.

Two weeks ago we reported on a scientific study showing that hundreds of seals had been shot since 2011 when they were pregnant or feeding their young, leaving pups to starve to death.

The Scottish Seals Forum, which met regularly between 2002 and 2010, brought together government agencies, experts, animal groups, salmon farmers, anglers and others. Its remit was to “develop a co-ordinated approach to the management of Scottish seal populations”.

But despite suggestions by campaigners that it should meet again, it has not reconvened. The Scottish Government is reviewing whether there’s a need for any further meetings. Animal welfare groups argue that the forum is now essential so that the threat to the future of the salmon farming industry can be discussed.

“I attended the seals forum for several years,” said Libby Anderson, policy adviser for the Scottish animal welfare charity, OneKind.

“It was once a critical means of bringing the industry, government and non-governmental organisations like our own together to seek agreement on how to protect seals.”

Anderson thought that the forum was now needed more than ever. “It should be discussing the latest research that shows seals are suffering, and the US decision to ban imports of Scottish salmon unless seals are protected,” she argued.

“We urgently need leadership or Scotland will face having its salmon exports excluded from one of the world’s biggest markets because of its poor animal welfare standards. This would needlessly damage Scotland’s reputation and our economy.”

Alan Knight, chief executive of International Animal Rescue, also used to attend the forum. “We definitely need a government voice in the debate about seal killing in Scotland,” he said.

“The law needs to be tightened to protect seals and the forum should be reinstated with a minister as chair.”

Mark Ruskell MSP, the environment spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, backed calls for the forum to be restarted. “If there was ever a time when the Scottish Government needed to step up and lead the salmon farming industry in a more sustainable direction, it's today,” he said.

“An import ban looms and yet ministers seem blasé about the impact this could have on one of their key food export sectors. The forum must be re-established and get the industry to seal-friendly status as soon as possible.”

According to the Scottish Government, the Scottish Seals Forum was established to provide a medium to exchange information. “The Scottish Government will continue to review the need for further formal meetings,” said a spokeswoman.

“Outwith these official meetings, the work done by the forum continues via regular discussions between the Scottish Government, its agencies and stakeholders.”

Following last weekend’s Sunday Herald story, Ruskell asked the government whether the Scottish salmon farming industry was compliant with a new US animal welfare regulation. The regulation says that “the harvesting nation must demonstrate it has prohibited the intentional mortality or serious injury of marine mammals in the course of commercial fishing operations”.

The rural economy minister, Fergus Ewing, replied by stressing that compliance with import regulations in another country was a matter for exporting companies. “The seal licensing system in Scotland enables fish farms to control seal predation as a means of last resort,” he said.

“Having a licence is not mandatory, and some fish farms choose to use only non-lethal deterrents instead.”