Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Monday, 29 December 2008

Call for common seal shooting ban

Harbour seal
Studies said common seal numbers had fallen dramatically in recent years

An emergency ban on the shooting of common seals is needed to halt an "alarming" drop in their population, a Green MSP has claimed.

Robin Harper said studies had revealed between 3,000 and 5,000 of the seals were shot each year. Their numbers have fallen by 56% in the UK since 2000.

He called for the Scottish Government to ban the practice and bolster seal protection in its new Marine Bill.

The government said it believed fewer than 1,000 seals were shot annually.

Current rules allow common seals - also known as harbour seals - to be shot by licensed individuals to stop damage to fish farm cages.

This would all seem to indicate that a substantial environmental change is taking place out in the North Sea
Robin Harper MSP

But Mr Harper, an MSP for the Lothians, has lodged a motion at the Scottish Parliament seeking support for a complete ban.

He said the apparent decline in common seal numbers was "extremely alarming."

"They are an iconic symbol of Scottish marine life, but they are also at the top of the food chain and provide us with strong indicators of the health of the marine environment", he added.

"In addition to the devastation of the Scottish common seal population, we are also seeing rapidly declining populations of Scottish seabirds.

"This would all seem to indicate that a substantial environmental change is taking place out in the North Sea."

The Green party highlighted research by the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University, which showed the seal population had dropped by 56% between 2000 and 2007.

The Greens said seal numbers fell by a quarter last year along the Argyll coast and dropped by 10% a year among the Orkney population.

Begun to recover

Andy Ottoway, campaign director of the Seal Protection Action Group, claimed the Scottish public supported a shooting ban.

He added: "We are calling for a ceasefire for seals with immediate effect and for the comprehensive protection of our globally important seal populations from all deliberate killing before it is too late."

In 2002, measures were introduced at the Moray Firth to regulate shooting.

The Scottish Government said surveys showed seal numbers may have begun to recover as a result.

It also said it had not seen evidence to support the claim that up to 5,000 seals may have been shot each year, and estimated the number could be under 1,000 annually.

One proposal in the forthcoming Marine Bill is for all shootings to be reported.

A government spokesman said: "This government is committed to protecting our important and iconic seal population, the largest in Europe. We must also protect our fragile coastal and island communities.

"We have begun the process, through the work of the Scottish Seals Forum and the proposed Scottish Marine Bill, to improve the protection given to seals and provide a better balance between environmental and economic needs in the management of Scotland's seal populations."

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