Clever seals outsmarting fishermen

09 Jun 2015

Bryan Gibson looks at the problems that seals can cause for fishermen and fish farmers.

It’s not often nature finds a way of outwitting mankind and then continues to improve upon the technique throughout the passage of time; but where fishermen and seals are concerned, fishermen are finding themselves outsmarted by a highly intelligent and adaptable enemy fighting upon home territory.  

Having evolved from land-based mammals such as bears, weasels, racoons and skunks about 50 million years ago, and withstood the ravages of evolution by their ability to reason, little wonder the common and grey seals living in the cold waters of the northern hemisphere are giving commercial fishermen a good run for their money. 

A fishing boat owner from Padstow in Cornwall, UK, told WF&A, that “Gillnet fishermen also don’t stand much chance against seals. On a recent trip our monkfish catch would have been worth over £8,000, but when we hauled our net, we strongly believe that over half the catch had been ripped apart by seals. And as both grey and common seals are endangered and legally protected, unlike our Scottish colleagues, there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”  

“Scientists invented ‘pingers’ costing up to £125 each to frighten dolphins away from our submerged fishing nets, and for a while they also discouraged seals, but it wasn’t very long before the seals realised that wherever the pinging sound was coming from, there was also a free meal, so now the deterrent acts as a dinner gong for seals.” 

Nourishment
Most of the concentrated nourishment in a fish is contained within the liver and intestines. Seals must consume huge quantities of fat and oils in relation to the predominantly protein-rich white flesh we humans value so highly. And this is where seals can come into such great conflict with fishermen. 

Like a fox in a chicken run, when a seal is presented with more food than it can eat, it will only take the most prized body parts from the many, and where seals are concerned this means biting just the stomachs of fat bellied, commercially valuable fish such as cod, haddock, hake and monkfish, leaving the fishermen with only gillnetted fish heads trapped in their nets.  

Trevor Broome, Attraction Manager at The National Seal Sanctuary told WF&A, “We acknowledge that seals often come into direct conflict with fishermen, but we do our best to minimise such impact by purchasing our fish supplies locally.”  

Tamara Cooper, BSC, Hons, Animal Care Supervisor believes that seals are unfairly taking the blame for a large proportion of such losses and there are many other suspects to consider. “Fishermen must learn to share ‘their’ resources and be willing to change their own working practices. I believe gillnets are left unattended for far too long, which gives other predators, large and small, the time to grasp any opportunity to predate upon the immobilised fish. Crustaceans and molluscs also take their toll upon catches, as well as larger fish and dolphins. If fishermen were more willing to vary their fishing areas and to travel further offshore, then the seals would have greater difficulty in discovering their nets.”  

Lost catch
Chris Bean of Kernow Sashimi is one of Cornwall’s most regularly televised sustainable fishermen. Chris works from his traditional Cornish built, ‘Under Ten Metres’ open decked wooden boat out of Cornwall’s Helford River and estimates that he loses between £4,000 and £6,000 catch value each year to seals. “That’s extremely annoying when I reflect upon the fact that a mile-or-so upstream the National Seal Sanctuary, owned by a huge world-girdling, profit-orientated amusement park concern, Merlin Entertainments Inc, rescues about 60 seal pups each autumn and teaches them throughout the winter to associate we humans with a food source which requires little or no effort to capture. Then they release them back into the sea the following spring to grab the fish from my net before I can haul it onboard.”  

Andy Ottaway of the Seal Protection Action Group (SPAG) says, “Salmon farming in the Scottish lochs as well as rod and line caught salmon in the Scottish rivers claim to be suffering particularly badly from seal predation, which led to salmon farmers receiving permission from the Scottish government to shoot up to 1,298 seals in 2011.  

“The Scottish Government’s seal licence scheme claims to be a significant step forward in reducing the numbers of seals shot each year. However, without an effective inspection and monitoring scheme, and non-lethal measures to deter seals, the numbers of seals killed in Scotland is set to remain unacceptably high. An average of over three seals shot every single day is too high a price to pay for Scottish salmon,” said Mr Ottaway. 

A spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) said there was no justification for shooting the animals and branded the Freedom Food scheme a misleading and cruel scam. “It is outrageous that seals were wilfully deprived of their existence so that a supermarket could steal their only source of food. Around 70 per cent of the salmon produced in Scotland is reared on Freedom Food approved farms. Freedom Food has 22 members in Scotland, operating 222 farms, 27 of which were involved in the slaughter. 

“In 2013, 60 seals were shot by Freedom Food members. It was claimed that such measures were no different to those that protect hens from predatory attacks. The shooting of one seal is one seal too many, but a sad reality of salmon farming, that a determined predator is capable of bypassing all efforts to exclude him and to attack the fish."  

An RSPCA spokesman insisted that it was concerned about the welfare of all animals and that such a method of control was a last resort. However, “SPAG is working with a major producer and a leading retailer of Scottish farmed salmon, along with the RSPCA and scientists from the Sea Mammal Research Unit to eventually end all seal killings.”