The Irish seal Sanctuary has relied on the support of inshore fishermen since its foundation in the 1980`s, without their support we could not have survived, when conflicts have arisen we have always tried to assist resolve these by determining the truths. An official cull is not on the cards and the Irish public would not tolerate one purely to satisfy the calls of fishermen. In our efforts to assist the industry we sit on a seal group with the Marine Institute, BIM and fishery representatives trying to establish the facts.
Seals eat fish, we do not doubt for a moment that seals are eating fish from nets. It makes sense for them to do this, after all why chase your own fish when a dead one is left hanging in a net, sometimes for days. The fact that our fish stocks have been at an all time low up to recently cannot be blamed on seals. Seals impact on fish stocks is minimal. How do we know this?
Seals, fishermen and fish have co-existed for millions of years. Predator numbers are governed by the availability of their prey. This leads to an obvious question, which is an anomaly. How or why have seal numbers increased recently if fish stocks are so low? Calls for a reduction in seal numbers were being made before the numbers were even estimated.
We believe that the practises of fishermen have made fish easily available to seals by the fishing methods they employ. Internationally, it is well established that set nets near seal colonies are the hardest hit by seals taking fish from them, yet Irish fishermen persist in using these nets near seal colonies. They also resist advice from both BIM and the Marine Institute to reduce the soak time of these nets. Some are left in place for days, and then the fishermen are shocked that seals have damaged their catches. I dare say so have crabs and any other marine scavenger in the area. But seals breath air and are seen, so they should be shot! We think not. Seals are smart creatures and will avail of the easiest source of food they can find.
Now we come to the legal side of things. All our marine mammals are protected under both national and international law. As well as under a number of international agreements Ireland has signed up to. Ireland is also required to monitor the seal population in Ireland and also the seals “Conservation Status”. Some of the fishing methods used by the fishermen hardest hit by seal depredation, set nets which are left in place are most frequently targeted by seals looking for a free meal, tangle nets are used around our coastline primarily to target Crawfish. Tangle nets pose a risk not just to protected seals but also to many other protected marine species. Including whales. While Ireland is obliged to monitor the “conservation status”of these animals the fishing industry refuse to disclose the number of marine mammals killed as by-catch in their fisheries. Seals, while clever, do get caught in tangle nets by accident but we have no idea how many each year. We maintain that this data is essential to monitor their status.
In a recent study Observers on boats using set nets over 91 days at sea saw 68 dead seals, 6 whales, dolphins and porpoises (including one minke whale), 114 protected fish species, including critically endangered Common Skate and Spurdog. 5 birds and an ocean sunfish also died in these nets. This study (available on the BIM website) states that seal by-catch was particularly prevalent in the tangle net fishery. As reported recently the price for Crawfish has crashed as most Irish Crawfish are exported to France and Irish exports are being undercut by imports from West Africa. This resulted in many fishermen stating that it was not worth their while fishing for Crawfish. We, the Irish Seal Sanctuary therefore call on the Irish government to ban the use of tangle nets within our twelve-mile exclusive fishery zone to protect our marine heritage and biodiversity.
We are available and willing to discuss problems with anyone calling for a cull of our seals but have found that these individuals usually prefer to avoid public discussion on this subject.