A MAJOR animal welfare organisation has defended a decision to continue to sanction the killing of seals in fish farms in updated welfare standards.

Despite protests, the RSPCA has retained the stipulation in its welfare standards for farmed Scottish salmon that the shooting of seals can be carried out but as a "last resort".

But for the first time the RSPCA have stipulated that the last resort will be reached when non-lethal actions have been carried out in full, including use of fully working Acoustic Deterrent Devices (ADDs) and predator nets, seal curtains or screens "where it is appropriate to do so".

HeraldScotland:

The RSPCA are also bringing in a more rigorous reporting of dead seals.

Campaigners have, nevertheless, criticised the new updated standards saying the RSPCA has already been allowing the "needless" shooting despite the rise in use of anti-predator nets and ADDs that should protect salmon stocks from seals and are sceptical that the new "last resort" definition will stop the killing.

The updated welfare standards, which are due to be implemented next month, continue to state that it is "acknowledged that in some exceptional cases, and as a last resort only, and where the welfare of the fish has been compromised... it may be necessary to use a lethal deterrent (i.e. shoot) a seal to protect the welfare of the fish".

Earlier this year, ministers 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.

Figures in April, last year revealed 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 in 2016, under licence from the Scottish Government.

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

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.

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

The Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture campaign group has condemned the continutation of the "shoot-to-kill policy".

Don Staniford, from the group said: "I would applaud any move to insist on the use of ADDs and predator nets if it can be implemented. But there is an "if appropriate" out clause.

HeraldScotland:

"Salmon farms killing seals without first installing anti-predator nets or Acoustic Deterrent Devices (ADDs) are clearly not already adhering to a policy of 'last resort'. "The sad truth is that bullets are much cheaper than nets. Installing anti-predator nets can cost £1 million per salmon farm. Cheap and nasty Scottish salmon leaves a bad taste in the mouth."

The RSPCA acknowledge that anti-predator nets may not be the answer and that shooting seals may still continue.

An RSPCA spokesman said: "No one wants seals to be shot, least of all the RSPCA, but neither do we want hundreds or thousands of salmon - which have the capacity to feel pain - to suffer and die in a seal attack. It’s a welfare dilemma and one which we are working hard to address.

"Shooting as a routine method for keeping seals away from a pen is illegal without a licence and is totally unacceptable. Members of RSPCA Assured are not allowed to routinely shoot seals.

"Measures in the RSPCA standards, if properly adhered to, should in most cases negate the need to shoot any seals.

HeraldScotland:

"Unfortunately, anti-predator nets are indiscriminate and are not the solution to solving the problem that some would have us think, in that they can catch and drown everything from diving seabirds such as cormorants and eider ducks to mammals such as seals and otters.

"They are also not suitable for some salmon farm sites, due to the prevailing currents and tides.

"However, their use remains one of the methods we require to be considered, before arriving at the last resort scenario."

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

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, where it is illegal to intentionally kill or injure seals in any commercial US fishing operation.

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

Animal rights group Sea Shepherd Scotland filmed the shooting of seals at Gamrie Bay, Aberdeenshire.

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

The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation has previously said the industry's "clear intention" was to cut the number of seals shot to zero.

Two years ago Grieg Seafood Hjaltland, the biggest salmon company on Shetland, brought in new econets to protect salmon and keep seals out, and have stopped killings altogether.