Section 98 — Seal licences

Marine (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:56 pm on 4th February 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 2:56 pm, 4th February 2010

We come to group 19. Amendment 72, in the name of Elaine Murray, is grouped with amendments 120, 121, 73 to 78, 122, 81 and 82.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

As a member of the Parliament who represents a rural constituency, I understand that predator behaviour and, in some cases, numbers must be controlled. Seals are predators. They are also intelligent animals, and a seal that chances upon a large concentration of salmon in a fishery or fish farm will be attracted to what appears to be a captive food source.

Thirty six per cent of the world's grey seal population lives in UK waters and 90 per cent of those are in the Scottish marine area; 7 per cent of the world's common seal population lives in UK waters, with 85 per cent of those in Scottish waters. The Scottish marine area is clearly important to those species. Moreover, seals are one of Scotland's iconic native species. On the other hand, aquaculture and salmon fishing are important contributors to the Scottish economy. Equally important, fish farming provides a source of nutritious, quality local food.

Seals and fish farms need to co-exist in Scotland's marine area, but the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, which was passed before fish farming became important to Scotland, is not appropriate; neither is the act's title a correct description of the legislation that it contains. Seals can be shot without reason outwith the close season and, in the close season, the netsmen's defence can be invoked as legal protection if someone is caught shooting seals. Therefore, the provisions in the Marine (Scotland) Bill were widely welcomed. They were improved at stage 2 and, I believe, will be further improved today.

Amendment 72 is a variant of an amendment that I lodged at stage 2. Labour members firmly believe that lethal methods of controlling seals should be a last resort when other methods, such as anti-predator nets and acoustic devices, have been tried and failed. [Interruption.]

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

One moment, Ms Murray. There is far too much noise. If members have a conversation that needs to take place, they should take it outside.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

Amendment 72 would require ministers, before they issue a licence to kill seals, to consider the damage that the animals had done to a fishery or fish farm, or to a similar facility in the vicinity. They would also have to consider the effectiveness of non-lethal methods of deterrence at that farm or fishery or at a similar facility in the vicinity. The amendment would also permit ministers to require the applicant to supply information so that, in determining the licence application, they would be able to judge whether any non-lethal alternative was possible before they issued a licence.

My amendments 77 and 122 are alternatives to Robin Harper's amendment 120. My colleagues and I have carefully considered amendment 120 and we are sympathetic to the policy intention behind it. The taking or killing of a seal that is at an advanced stage of pregnancy or has dependent pups, which would starve to death, is highly undesirable and should be permissible only in extreme circumstances—for example, when a mass escape of farmed fish would pose a significant threat to the environment and could be prevented by no means other than taking or killing the seal concerned.

The provisions in amendment 120 are broad. It could set in the bill a period of seven months when seals could not be taken or killed. Section 100(3) permits but does not require the species of seal to be specified on a seal licence, so some licences that are issued might apply to grey and common seals. If amendment 120 were agreed to, such licences would be inoperable for seven months each year. Moreover, determining which species of seal is threatening a fish farm can be difficult when the seal is in the water. We therefore feel—with great regret and after much reflection—unable to support amendment 120.

My alternative—amendment 77—would enable ministers to include as a condition of a seal licence any period when seals could not be taken or killed but would not specify those periods in primary legislation. Such a period would be appropriate to the licence and the circumstances of the application.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 3:00 pm, 4th February 2010

Order. I am sorry to interrupt again, Ms Murray. The amendments are about important provisions in the bill and it would serve members well to listen.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

Scottish ministers would decide—on the advice of Marine Scotland and other bodies such as the sea mammal research unit and the Natural Environment Research Council—what conditions on close seasons were appropriate for a licence.

Amendment 122 would enable exemptions from any period of prohibition to be applied for if no other way of preventing an escape that would seriously damage the environment, for example, was satisfactory.

I warmly welcome the amendments in the cabinet secretary's name. At stage 2, I lodged amendments that would have required seal licences to specify the marksmanship skills that were required to avoid unnecessary suffering, the type of firearm that was to be used, the proximity to the seal before it could be shot and the appropriate weather conditions, and to prohibit shooting from an unstable platform. I also lodged amendments on carcase recovery and on the regular reporting of numbers of seals that were taken under licence. I did not press those amendments, because the cabinet secretary felt that they could be improved. He agreed to revise them and to bring them back at stage 3. I am delighted that he has done that in amendments 73 to 76, 78, 81 and 82.

I have considerable sympathy for the policy intention behind Robin Harper's amendment 121. It is difficult to imagine why an application would be lodged to locate a fish farm close to a seal haul-out site. Apart from placing temptation in the way of seals, I imagine that such proximity would cause stress to the fish. However, I understand that some fish farms are located in such places.

I have two problems with amendment 121. What does the phrase

"a site important to seals" mean? I appreciate that the amendment requires ministers to consult NERC, but that phrase is not defined and could be open to wide interpretation.

I am concerned about the consequences of amendment 121 in practice. For example, a fish farm might be located close to a haul-out site for common seals. Common seals are smaller, have less powerful jaws and can be more easily deterred by anti-predator nets. The fish farm and the common seals might happily exist side by side, but what would happen if a rogue grey seal that could not be deterred by any non-lethal methods targeted the fish farm? The amendment would prevent the fish farm from applying for a seal licence. For that reason, I feel—again with great regret—unable to support Robin Harper's amendment 121.

I move amendment 72.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

The arguments for amendment 120 have been well rehearsed. I am sure that members have received many e-mails on the subject, as I have. I pay tribute to Advocates for Animals and the Seal Protection Action Group for their energy.

Amendment 120 is almost identical to a stage 2 amendment that I lodged. After listening to the concerns of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee and the cabinet secretary, I altered the amendment to allow an exception to the close season rule in extraordinary circumstances, such as the threat of a large-scale escape from a fish farm.

I still hold that we now run the risk of taking a retrograde step in how we deal with seal management. Currently, section 2 of the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 at least allows for close seasons in principle. Only around a dozen close season licences are granted each year. Removing close seasons completely through the bill while also bringing fish farms into the licensing regime is, in my opinion, a pretty poor step backwards for seal conservation.

Seal pups, of both species, are entirely dependent for their survival on their mother's fatty and protein-rich milk. If the pups lose their mother before the natural weaning process has taken place, they will slowly starve to death, not to mention suffer stress and increased susceptibility to pneumonia or septicaemia. To draw a parallel that I have drawn before, we would not do the same to any of our tame farm animals. I and the vast majority of the public find the prospect of shooting pregnant or nursing seals quite barbaric. Such a cruel practice is not tolerated on land. Why should it be any different for animals in the marine environment?

However, I hope that members will vote for the alternative Labour amendments, which are at least something of a step forward, although they do not go nearly as far as I would like.

On amendment 121, let me once more take the opportunity to try to persuade Elaine Murray to change her mind. Again, amendment 121 is similar to an amendment that was lodged at stage

2. The amendment seeks to prevent a seal licence from being granted to any new fish farm or other fishery installation that chooses to set up beside a site that is recognised by the Natural Environment Research Council and Scottish ministers as being important for seals. The wording "important for seals" is a careful definition that will allow the scientists to decide on the matter. On the basis of the scientific evidence—which is the basis on which we wish the provisions in the bill to progress at every stage—the Government can decide whether an area is important for seals and, therefore, whether a licence would fall within the terms of the bill as amended by amendment 121.

Seals are habitual in their practices. They haul out and breed at the same sites for many years. People should not be surprised if seals become interested in the new hypermarket that has been created if someone chooses to place a new fish farm next to a haul-out site. Seals eat fish—that is what they do. People should not then ask for a licence to shoot the seals in an attempt to alter the natural environment so that it is more to their liking. That might seem like a common-sense approach, both from a welfare angle and from a commercial angle, but members would be surprised. An on-going case in Lewis involves a proposal for a new fish farm at Broad Bay right next to the aptly named seals' cave, which is famed as the breeding cave of seals in Lewis. Another case in the Sound of Harris is also causing considerable concern. No doubt the seals are flapping around the beaches there saying, "Here comes breakfast, lunch and tea." The best way to avoid such conflict is simply to keep the species apart by ensuring that seal licences are granted to new fish farms only if they are responsibly sited.

I remind members that assistance is available to fish farms for capital investment, including for non-lethal anti-predator measures such as tensioned nets and the new acoustic seal scarers that I will refer to later. That makes it easier for fish farms to ensure that they have sufficient alternative methods in place so that the need to kill seals should very seldom arise.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I will speak first to Scottish Government amendments 73 to 76, 78, 81 and 82, which deal with seal licences.

The Government amendments provide for a number of things, including: minimising unnecessary suffering; licence conditions on firearm type, weather conditions, safe distances, stable platforms and recovery of carcases for research; the need for ministers to be satisfied as to marksmanship skills; and a review of the licence system every five years. Many of those licence conditions already operate in the successful Moray Firth seal management pilot and it was always intended that such conditions should be part of the seal licence system. However, at stage 2, it was felt that the conditions should be specifically acknowledged in the bill and I made a commitment to the committee to do so. The Government amendments deliver on that commitment. They also reflect the concerns of animal welfare groups.

Amendment 72 was lodged by Elaine Murray, who, as we all recognise, has taken a close interest in seal conservation matters throughout the bill process. It provides that Scottish ministers must have regard to previous damage and/or the effectiveness of non-lethal measures in fisheries or at fish farms before they grant a seal licence. Again, it was always intended that such information would be taken into account before a licence was granted. I resisted the stage 2 amendments on the ground that they were too prescriptive, but I consider that amendment 72 provides a suitable context for putting greater emphasis on non-lethal measures in preference to lethal options, so I am content to accept it.

Robin Harper's amendment 121 provides that Scottish ministers may not grant a seal licence to any fishery or fish farm

"adjacent to a site important to seals", but it provides no definition of sites "important to seals". Such a definition would be needed for the provision to operate satisfactorily.

I understand the desire to limit potential conflict between seals and fisheries and fish farms, but I have difficulty with amendment 121, as it fails to recognise that a significant number of sites might be considered "important to seals". Such sites could encompass large parts of the Scottish coast and surrounding waters, and would be subject to change, sometimes over short timescales, as seals moved around the coast.

In essence, amendment 121 proposes exclusion zones around sites "important to seals", the number of which could be large. In such zones, fisheries and fish farms would be unable to protect themselves or their fish stocks. That would be the case even when non-lethal measures were ineffective or when management of grey seals was necessary near a common seal site.

The exclusion of fish farms or fisheries from locations

"adjacent to a site important to seals" might also have important implications for marine renewables, which present similar potential challenges. Surely it is more appropriate for the issue to be addressed through the wider marine planning process when genuine conflicts exist. In that way, decisions on the most appropriate location for any developments in the marine area will take into account a wide range of factors.

Scottish Natural Heritage is already a statutory consultee on fish farm sites and often raises the issue of potential conflicts. For those reasons, I join Elaine Murray in urging members to resist amendment 121.

I turn to Elaine Murray's amendments 77 and 122 and Robin Harper's amendment 120. I appreciate from recent campaigns that the possibility of pregnant or nursing seals being killed is a highly emotive issue, but I must record that many of those campaigns are based on inaccurate information. The proposals in the bill will increase protection for pregnant and nursing seals. They will remove the so-called netsmen's defence, which has been exploited by some people to engage in unregulated killing of seals, including seal pups, during close seasons. The bill provides that all seal management will be carried out under licence and so will be properly regulated.

It was recognised during committee consideration that a complete ban on killing all seals during large portions of the year would leave fisheries and fish farms unable to defend themselves from seal predation. That is why I resisted the amendments that were lodged at stage 2. However, I appreciate that there is genuine concern about the possibility of pregnant and nursing seals being killed, so I am happy to restate the commitment that I made at stage 2 to monitor the new seal licence system closely and, if the monitoring suggests that there is a significant problem, to consider the introduction of close season restrictions. I am therefore content to accept Elaine Murray's amendment 77, which clarifies the relevant power in the bill.

Robin Harper's amendment 120 would prohibit the taking or killing of seals for any reason for three months of each year for common seals and for four months of each year for grey seals. It proposes an exception to that prohibition through what amounts to a shadow seal licence system, which will presumably duplicate the existing system and incorporate additional conditions. In effect, it would mean the development of two seal licence systems, one for the close season and one for the remaining period. I hope that members agree that that could result only in confusion and duplication for administrators, consultees, stakeholders and other people who had to use or monitor the new system.

I understand the intention behind amendment 120, which tries to protect pregnant and nursing females, but although its aim is entirely laudable, it could have important unforeseen consequences. It would seriously hinder the ability of the Scottish Government to meet its obligations to kill or take seals in an emergency—for example, to preserve public health or public safety, to prevent the spread of disease, to conserve natural habitats or species, or for other imperative reasons of overriding public interest—for significant parts of the year.

Amendment 120 would also hinder vital scientific research, including seal tagging and DNA sampling, during significant and particularly important parts of each year. Again, that could interfere with research that is vital to securing the future of Scotland's iconic seal populations. The amendment would significantly increase the bureaucracy and costs involved in any seal licence system by providing for the two parallel systems to which I have referred. That would be likely to result in either separate or more complex application forms, consultations, assessments, reports and monitoring. The new seal licence system will be complex enough without that extra layer of complexity. For those reasons, I urge members to resist amendment 120.

Amendment 122, in the name of Elaine Murray, seeks to provide an exemption to a seal licence condition under her amendment 77, which specifies periods during which seals may not be killed or taken—that is, close seasons. However, she fails to propose the necessary consequential amendments that would allow that exemption to offer a defence against the offence under section 95. For that reason, I ask her not to move amendment 122.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat 3:15 pm, 4th February 2010

This group of amendments is one of few that do not contain an amendment of mine.

The Liberal Democrats welcome and support all the amendments in the group that were lodged by Dr Murray and the cabinet secretary. Together, the proposed changes represent a marked improvement in the protection of seals. They focus on introducing more stringent licensing and reporting requirements while recognising that it may still be necessary, as a last resort and under strict conditions, to take or shoot a seal that cannot be deterred from attacking nets.

Unfortunately, despite his significant efforts to try to accommodate the concerns that I and other committee members had at stage 2, Robin Harper has not been able to go far enough. His amendments 120 and 121 leave open too many potential pitfalls, which Dr Murray and the cabinet secretary have articulated. I understand that, as things currently stand, SNH can, through the planning process, enter concerns or objections about the potential location of a fish farm. Perhaps the cabinet secretary can reflect on whether there is scope, through working directly with the Natural Environment Research Council, to establish whether more can be done to identify potential problems with particular locations and haul-out sites.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

I welcome Elaine Murray's amendments 72 and 77 and the Government's amendments in the group. A balance must be struck in protecting the welfare of seals and farmed fish, and, together, those amendments achieve that.

Amendment 72 reasonably requires all possible information to be available about damage being done and preventive deterrent action being taken before a licence is granted. Amendment 77 is also welcome in going some way towards protecting seal pups.

The Government's amendments 73, 74, 76 and 78 will tighten up the conditions under which seals may be shot, and they put in place an enhanced reporting system. That is, of course, to be welcomed. Amendment 82 will create wide-ranging five-year reviews of the seal licensing regime, and is also to be welcomed.

I have concerns about Robin Harper's amendments 120 and 121. I understand what he is seeking to achieve, but believe that his amendments would produce a seven-month close season. I agree with Elaine Murray's comments on that. It is regrettable that amendment 121 is too non-specific, and I am afraid that the proposals are impossible to define in law, particularly the phrase

"a site important to seals", notwithstanding Robin Harper's claim that such sites can be successfully defined scientifically.

As I have said, a balance must struck between the welfare of farmed fish and that of wild seals. Taken in conjunction with Elaine Murray's amendments 72 and 77, the Government's amendments achieve that balance. Far greater protection of seals will result from them, and I welcome the cabinet secretary's commitment to reviewing matters further in future if that is necessary.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

I will say one or two things that result from what Robin Harper said. As a result of an amendment that I lodged being disagreed to this morning, fish farms will not come within the marine licensing system; they will remain within the terrestrial planning system. Therefore, will the cabinet secretary consider issuing guidance to planners on the siting of fish farms to overcome issues relating to the potential for fish farms to be sited in the vicinity of haul-out sites or other sites?

Robin Harper's amendment 120 allows—as my amendment 122 attempts to allow—for the shooting of seals in extremis when severe environmental concerns surround a possible escape of fish. Although it is clearly undesirable to shoot a pregnant seal or a seal with young pups, we do not have a close season for foxes, which can be shot during the breeding season even if they have young pups that are left without food. We behave in that way towards other predators on land, and I do not think that we should treat seals differently. I note that the cabinet secretary will review the situation. We will be interested in the results of that review and how the bill works in practice.

The cabinet secretary says that I have failed to lodge the amendments that would be required as a consequence of amendment 122 being agreed to. Amendment 122 was intended to supply a degree of comfort to the aquaculture industry in that, if an extreme situation arose in which a seal attacked a fish farm within a prescribed period, an application could be made for the prohibition to be lifted to deal with the situation before there was a mass escape of fish, for example.

I am pleased that the cabinet secretary has accepted my amendment 77. I hope that, when the prohibition conditions are being laid on a licence, some thought will be given to how things will be managed should an extreme situation arise in which the prohibition may no longer be appropriate. For example, a fish farm could be attacked by a rogue seal during the breeding season, with possible environmental consequences. The Scottish aquaculture industry has had great success in driving down the number of escapes over the years. There are far fewer escapes than there used to be, and we do not want the unintended consequence of any legislation to be an increase in the number of escapes from fish farms in the future.

Amendment 72 agreed to.

Amendment 120 moved—[Robin Harper].

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The question is, that amendment 120 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

There will be a division. As it is the first division this afternoon, I suspend the meeting for five minutes.

Meeting suspended.

On resuming—

Division number 17

For: Harper, Robin, Harvie, Patrick, MacDonald, Margo
Against: Adam, Brian, Aitken, Bill, Alexander, Ms Wendy, Allan, Alasdair, Baillie, Jackie, Baker, Claire, Baker, Richard, Boyack, Sarah, Brankin, Rhona, Brocklebank, Ted, Brown, Gavin, Brown, Keith, Brown, Robert, Brownlee, Derek, Butler, Bill, Campbell, Aileen, Carlaw, Jackson, Chisholm, Malcolm, Coffey, Willie, Constance, Angela, Craigie, Cathie, Crawford, Bruce, Cunningham, Roseanna, Curran, Margaret, Don, Nigel, Doris, Bob, Eadie, Helen, Ewing, Fergus, Fabiani, Linda, Ferguson, Patricia, Finnie, Ross, FitzPatrick, Joe, Foulkes, George, Fraser, Murdo, Gibson, Kenneth, Gibson, Rob, Gillon, Karen, Glen, Marlyn, Goldie, Annabel, Gordon, Charlie, Grahame, Christine, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Harvie, Christopher, Henry, Hugh, Hepburn, Jamie, Hume, Jim, Hyslop, Fiona, Ingram, Adam, Jamieson, Cathy, Johnstone, Alex, Kelly, James, Kerr, Andy, Kidd, Bill, Lamont, Johann, Lamont, John, Livingstone, Marilyn, Lochhead, Richard, MacAskill, Kenny, Macdonald, Lewis, Macintosh, Ken, Martin, Paul, Marwick, Tricia, Mather, Jim, Matheson, Michael, Maxwell, Stewart, McArthur, Liam, McAveety, Mr Frank, McConnell, Jack, McGrigor, Jamie, McInnes, Alison, McKee, Ian, McKelvie, Christina, McLaughlin, Anne, McLetchie, David, McMahon, Michael, McMillan, Stuart, McNeil, Duncan, McNeill, Pauline, McNulty, Des, Milne, Nanette, Mitchell, Margaret, Mulligan, Mary, Murray, Elaine, Neil, Alex, O'Donnell, Hugh, Oldfather, Irene, Paterson, Gil, Peacock, Peter, Peattie, Cathy, Pringle, Mike, Purvis, Jeremy, Robison, Shona, Rumbles, Mike, Russell, Michael, Salmond, Alex, Scanlon, Mary, Scott, John, Scott, Tavish, Simpson, Dr Richard, Smith, Elaine, Smith, Elizabeth, Smith, Iain, Smith, Margaret, Somerville, Shirley-Anne, Stephen, Nicol, Stevenson, Stewart, Stewart, David, Stone, Jamie, Sturgeon, Nicola, Swinney, John, Thompson, Dave, Tolson, Jim, Watt, Maureen, Welsh, Andrew, White, Sandra, Whitefield, Karen, Whitton, David, Wilson, Bill, Wilson, John

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The result of the division is: For 3, Against 120, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 120 disagreed to.

Amendment 121 moved—[Robin Harper].

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The question is, that amendment 121 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

Division number 18

For: Harper, Robin, Harvie, Patrick, MacDonald, Margo
Against: Adam, Brian, Aitken, Bill, Alexander, Ms Wendy, Allan, Alasdair, Baillie, Jackie, Baker, Claire, Baker, Richard, Boyack, Sarah, Brankin, Rhona, Brocklebank, Ted, Brown, Gavin, Brown, Keith, Brown, Robert, Brownlee, Derek, Butler, Bill, Campbell, Aileen, Carlaw, Jackson, Chisholm, Malcolm, Coffey, Willie, Constance, Angela, Craigie, Cathie, Crawford, Bruce, Cunningham, Roseanna, Curran, Margaret, Don, Nigel, Doris, Bob, Eadie, Helen, Ewing, Fergus, Fabiani, Linda, Ferguson, Patricia, Finnie, Ross, FitzPatrick, Joe, Foulkes, George, Fraser, Murdo, Gibson, Kenneth, Gibson, Rob, Gillon, Karen, Glen, Marlyn, Goldie, Annabel, Gordon, Charlie, Grahame, Christine, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Harvie, Christopher, Henry, Hugh, Hepburn, Jamie, Hume, Jim, Hyslop, Fiona, Ingram, Adam, Jamieson, Cathy, Johnstone, Alex, Kelly, James, Kerr, Andy, Kidd, Bill, Lamont, Johann, Lamont, John, Livingstone, Marilyn, Lochhead, Richard, MacAskill, Kenny, Macdonald, Lewis, Macintosh, Ken, Martin, Paul, Marwick, Tricia, Mather, Jim, Matheson, Michael, Maxwell, Stewart, McArthur, Liam, McAveety, Mr Frank, McConnell, Jack, McGrigor, Jamie, McInnes, Alison, McKee, Ian, McKelvie, Christina, McLaughlin, Anne, McLetchie, David, McMahon, Michael, McMillan, Stuart, McNeil, Duncan, McNeill, Pauline, McNulty, Des, Milne, Nanette, Mitchell, Margaret, Mulligan, Mary, Murray, Elaine, Neil, Alex, O'Donnell, Hugh, Oldfather, Irene, Park, John, Paterson, Gil, Peacock, Peter, Peattie, Cathy, Pringle, Mike, Purvis, Jeremy, Robison, Shona, Rumbles, Mike, Russell, Michael, Salmond, Alex, Scanlon, Mary, Scott, John, Scott, Tavish, Simpson, Dr Richard, Smith, Elaine, Smith, Elizabeth, Smith, Iain, Smith, Margaret, Somerville, Shirley-Anne, Stephen, Nicol, Stevenson, Stewart, Stewart, David, Stone, Jamie, Sturgeon, Nicola, Swinney, John, Thompson, Dave, Tolson, Jim, Watt, Maureen, Welsh, Andrew, White, Sandra, Whitefield, Karen, Whitton, David, Wilson, Bill, Wilson, John

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The result of the division is: For 3, Against 121, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 121 disagreed to.