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Minutes of the Seal Forum (1)

MINUTES OF THE 1 st MEETING OF THE SEALS FORUM
WEDNESDAY 23 RD OCTOBER 2002

Attendees

Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD) Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH)
Fisheries Research Services (FRS) - Freshwater Laboratory
Sea Mammal Research Unit, St Andrews University , (SMRU)
Marine Biological Station, Millport
Marine Conservation Society (MCS)
Scottish Society for the Protection and Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA)
WWF Scotland
Salmon Net Fishing Association of Scotland
The Atlantic Salmon Trust
Anglo-Scottish Fishermen's Association
Association of Salmon Fishery Boards (ASFB's)

Introductions
The Chair welcomed all participants to the meeting and indicated that the main purpose of this initial meeting was to discuss and agree the terms of reference for the Group and to agree next steps.

Background
Following the success of the stakeholder seminar hosted by the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University on 27 June 2002 , SEERAD wrote to all those organisations present at or invited to the seminar to obtain views on how to progress seals issues. The general view was that there would be merit in establishing some form of forum or working group in which seal research and management issues could be openly discussed. This meeting represents the initial stage in this process. ACTION: SEERAD to circulate a list of invitees.

Legal Context
SEERAD have obligations on seal conservation under the Habitats Directive, but need also to address legitimate fishery concerns about seal predation.

The Conservation of Seals Act 1970 places restrictions on methods used to take or kill seals and specifies close seasons for each species during which seals can only be taken or killed under licence. In light of the recent PDV outbreak, the Conservation of Seals ( Scotland ) Order 2002 was introduced, extending the close season to the whole year for common seals throughout Scotland , and grey seals in the Moray Firth .

Both grey and common seals are listed under the Habitats Directive and Member States are obliged to designate special areas of conservation with a view to the maintenance of favourable conservation status. In these areas, Member States must take steps to avoid deterioration of habitats and significant disturbance of species. There is a further requirement to ensure that taking or exploitation of the species, whether within an SAC or not, is compatible with the maintenance of favourable conservation status. The Directive also restricts the methods of killing or capture which may be used.

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)
Under the Habitats Directive SACs have been selected in areas deemed crucial for the lifecycle of both seal species in known breeding/haul out sites. JNCC are presently in the process of considering additional SACs beyond 12 miles.

  • Grey Seals. The UK , and Scotland in particular, has a specific responsibility for the conservation of grey seals, with a significant percentage of the EU and world population in these waters. At present there are 6 candidate marine SACs for grey seals in Scotland with 47% of pup production covered.
  • Common Seals: Common seals tend to live in more discrete population units, with a more patchy distribution around the UK coastline. This makes SAC site selection more difficult, with candidate sites identified on the basis of "regular occupation" and species numbers. There are currently 8 candidate sites for common seals in Scotland , and one further possible site, with 18% of the population covered.

Scientific Advice
The Scottish Executive receives scientific advice on seals from a range of experts including the Natural Environment Research Council's (NERC) Special Committee on Seals (SCOS), SMRU, FRS and SNH.

Current Research
There is extensive research on seals being undertaken by SMRU and funded by NERC, both via the SMRU core research programme and specific research grants. In addition to this work, SMRU are engaged in a three-year project, supported by SEERAD and DEFRA, to identify the main components of grey seal diet. Existing knowledge is based on data gathered in 1985, and this project will update this for current seal and fish populations. Faecal samples from seal haul out sites will be collected and analysed. It is hoped that fatty acid analysis can be developed which may offer a more accurate means of assessing seal diet in future.

FRS - Freshwater Laboratory are involved in a joint project with SMRU on seal /salmon interactions. The project will focus on the use of faecal analysis and DNA based techniques to determine the presence of salmon otoliths within seal scats. This will provide more conclusive information on the consumption of salmon, and especially smolts, by seal populations.

SEERAD, SNH, SMRU and DSFB's are presently developing a scientific proposal on seal management in rivers and estuaries. This project will comprise a series of stages:

  • development and application of a cetacean friendly seal scarer in areas where an appreciable number of salmon deaths result from seal predation,
  • studying behavioural interactions between salmon and marine mammals at known feeding hot spots (within rivers/estuaries and at specific offshore locations); and
  • the quantification of predator damage within salmon SACs.

Funding will be sought through EU LIFE and NERC-Connect B bids.

Phocine Distemper Virus (PDV)
It was confirmed that a total of 3173 seal carcasses had been washed up in the UK since the beginning of the PDV outbreak. In England seal mortality has totalled 2942, suggesting the presence of a more virulent form of the virus than in 1988. The full impact of PDV has still to affect Scotland with only a small number of confirmed cases. It was indicated that grey seals may suffer sub-lethal effects, particularly on the east coast where the pupping season has been concurrent with the outbreak. PDV is thought to cause premature birth and abortions in grey seal colonies. During the 1988 outbreak reduced grey seal pup production was witnessed.

Terms of Reference and Mechanisms
It was agreed that the name "Seal Working Group" should be adopted and that the remit of the group should focus on three main objectives:

  • To meet the UK 's nature conservation obligations;
  • To seek to minimise the economic loss to fishermen and fish farmers, and
  • To seek to maximise the economic benefit from tourism.

Thereafter bullet points would suggest the methods by which these can be achieved. ACTION : SEERAD to revise and circulate the Terms of Reference.

It was agreed that to encourage open discussion Chatham House rules should be adopted for future meetings. ACTION : SEERAD to circulate.

Research
It was agreed that the Working Group needed to be aware of the latest state of research on seal populations, on the interactions between seals and commercial fisheries and between seals and fish farming and on existing and potential mitigation measures. This should encompass both UK and any relevant international seal research on these issues. This review process should include the identification of key gaps in the current research to allow the Working Group to discuss and identify priority areas for future research. It was agreed that the next meeting should include a presentation from SMRU on the latest SCOS report on seal populations. This would provide a focus for further discussion. ACTION : SMRU to provide an overview of the latest SCOS annual report on seal populations for the next meeting.

Data Collection and Dissemination
It was generally agreed that there were limitations in existing knowledge of local seal observations and local seal management practice. A great deal of data in these respective areas was locally available or could be collected. DSFBs have access to information of potential scientific value on seal damage. Knowledge of existing seal management methods outwith the close seasons is limited at present. This sort of local data needed to be collected, on a scientific and non-attributable basis, to inform the discussions of the Working Group. It was suggested that this could be achieved using a data collection protocol developed by scientists working in collaboration with fishery and fish farming interests. The results would then be analysed and presented to the Working Group for discussion.

Information
It was considered that there was a lack of knowledge regarding current conservation measures protecting seals and existing provisions for the protection of fisheries and fish farms. It was also accepted that there was wide variation in existing seal management and mitigation measures on a local basis. In some areas no known seal management exists but whether this was because there was no perceived problem or no effective solution was unclear. It was therefore considered important that the Working Group, wherever possible, should seek to identify examples of good practice in terms of seal management and mitigation measures and to disseminate these as widely as possible. The adoption of effective non-lethal mitigation measures should be a high priority.

Working Group Structure
It was necessary to decide how frequently the core Working Group will meet but there was feeling that it should focus on substantial issues. It was agreed that members of this core Working Group should be expected to commit time and effort to it. It was important that this group did not appear remote or inaccessible but that individuals could "self-select" their level of involvement depending on the time they were able to offer.

It was suggested that it might be useful to hold an Annual Meeting where a broader group of people could be informed about and discuss the work of the core Working Group.

There was general agreement that a sub-group structure would facilitate progress on specific issues and allow substantial bits of work to be tackled in a more focussed way. The sub-groups would then report back or submit papers to Working Group meetings.

It was agreed that Working Papers could play a significant role by allowing members or sub-groups to complete significant tasks between meetings. ACTION : SEERAD would invite suggestions for the work programme of the Working Group and provide a draft for consideration at the next meeting.

Date of next meeting
The next meeting will take place on Thursday 30 January 2003, at 10.30am. Venue to be confirmed.

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