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2015 By Brendan Price

Ironically, the introduction of Ireland’s first conservation legislation (1976 Wildlife Act) affording protection to seals coincided with the explosion of drift netting. Fishermen included, everyone wanted a piece of the salmon silver, the bonanza made possible by the ecologically unsustainable driftnet fisheries!

As salmon numbers plummeted, a contest between anglers and commercial fishermen ensued, resulting in the inevitable driftnet ban. Until this event, the ISS was of the view that illegal culling was random and unrepresentative. But was this ever the case or was there always, in the shadows of commercial conflict, a war of attrition against seals?

In our experience of rescued seals by and from coastal/fishing communities and so many happy releases we are sure that culls are not representative of fishing communities! Nor are culls random, but rather systematic. So who is behind them?

Prior to 1976, seal bounties operated. Since then driftnet wars have brought illegal culls into sharp focus, perpetrated by poachers under the eyes of fisheries boards and NPWS, the same people who have regulated salmon to the verge of extinction. Extensive seal slaughters occurred over these years: Iniskea (1981), Blaskets (1996 and 2004), Inisturk (2004), to mention some of the more publicised ones. I use the word ‘slaughter’ because many seals were left to die slowly, including nursing pups alongside dead mothers. Invariably these events occurred around Halloween, fast approaching and a time to be vigilant for Grey Seals, at their most vulnerable and on their birthing grounds, out of sight of resting fishermen and holidaymakers, with imminent storms to remove the evidence!

Invariably, these events are preceded by ‘silly season’ with mainstream media pitting seal against salmon, a dangerously distorted practise that puts a protected species at risk for the want of comprehensive research in place of cheap headlines.

The last incident in 2004 on the Blaskets would have gone unnoticed but for the sustained efforts of ISS founding member Sean Eviston (RIP), who with independent witnesses and vet moved bureaucrats to confirm and publicise the event in the face of official denial. A year’s cohort of newborn pups was wiped out on the Blaskets in that incident!

Large-scale incidents aside, other seals are illegally shot throughout the year. Last summer, a large Grey bull swam in, headshot, to die among recreational users of a Cork Harbour. In February 2007, another was shot in full view of the public at Dunmore East, a case being prosecuted by the DPP on October 9th in Waterford District Court. This may be a landmark case for Grey seals. We are not aware of any NPWS prosecutions in these events.

Seals remain the scapegoat, here and worldwide, for failed fisheries management and failed fisheries policy. Advocates of seal culling appear to prefer megaphone diplomacy to engagement with stakeholders to protect both species, seal and salmon. One must question who these advocates are and who they represent. Government wildlife policy must not be media led and we exhort the Green Minister for wildlife to gather all stakeholders for discussion and debate before the world’s first protected species becomes a persecuted species.