Seal licensing system: second review

This report is the second statutory review of the operation of the seal licensing system in Scotland under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 which covers the improvements since the last review and makes recommendations for the future operation of the system.

2. The seal licensing system in Scotland

Part 6 of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 makes it an offence to kill, injure or take a live seal except in accordance with a licence issued for killing or taking of seals. The seal licensing system has been in operation since 31 January 2011, when the first licences were issued. 

Licences may be granted for one of the ten licensable purposes listed in section 110(1) of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. In the review period, licences were issued for the following purposes listed in the Act;

  • For scientific, research or educational purposes (S110(1)(a)),
  • To protect the health and welfare of farmed fish (S110(1)(f)),
  • To prevent serious damage to fisheries or fish farms (S110(1)(g)).

2.1 Forthcoming changes to the seal licensing system 

On 17 June 2020, Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020 passed its final stage in the Scottish Parliament. The Act contains new provisions to improve the conservation and welfare prospects of seals by amending the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 to increase the penalties associated with the offence of killing, injuring or taking seals (intentionally or recklessly) in line with other serious wildlife crimes, and to remove two grounds for which Scottish Ministers can grant licences authorising the taking or killing of seals. Therefore, from the commencement date of these provisions, Scottish Ministers will no longer issue licences to take or kill seals under sections 110 (1)(f) and 110 (1)(g) of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 (for purposes of protecting the health and welfare of farmed fish and preventing serious damage to fisheries or fish farms). However, this report completes the existing requirement to carry out a review. 

2.2 Licences for scientific, research or educational purposes

In the review period, licences for scientific, research or educational purposes have been granted only to take seals. The number of licences granted is shown in Table 1. Taking of seals refers to capture in the wild to; 

  • temporarily restrain in order to remove disabling objects or to conduct scientific experiments, 
  • transport to and temporarily hold in an appropriate captive facility or rescue centre, or 
  • transport to another location, before releasing back into the wild. 

There is no pro-forma for submitting applications for this type of licence so application is made by letter to MS-LOT.

2.3 Licences to protect health of farmed fish and welfare or prevent serious damage to fisheries or fish farms

In the last five years, licences to kill seals have been granted under subsections (f) and (g). The number of licences granted is shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Number of licences granted under each provision from 2015 to 2020
Licence Year 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Health and welfare of farmed fish 29 28 28 27 27 27
Serious damage to fisheries or fish farms 22 18 20 18 18 20
Scientific, research or educational purposes 1 1 1 1 1 1

Applications under (f) and (g) are submitted in October of each year for the next licensing period which runs from 1 February to 31 January. Typically, aquaculture operators apply for licences to kill seals under 'protection of health and welfare of farmed fish' and river fisheries apply under 'prevention of serious damage to fisheries and fish farms'. 

For applications for 'prevention of serious damage', as required by section 110(2) of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, Scottish Ministers must have regard to any information they have about;

  • Damage seals have done to the fishery or fish farm, and
  • Effectiveness of non-lethal methods to preventing seal damage to the fish farm or fishery.

Therefore, all applications under this provision must be accompanied by a survey which details the last 12 months of operation and levels of seal predation. MS-LOT also collects this information for applications to protect health and welfare. Applicants are required to demonstrate that shooting of seals will only be used as a last resort by providing evidence of any other non-lethal methods employed and their effectiveness in deterring seal predation. 

2.4 Determination of applications

Marine Scotland Licensing Operations Team (MS-LOT) considers applications. Consultation on seal licence applications is required by section 116 of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, which requires United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) and NatureScot (the operating name of Scottish Natural Heritage) to be consulted. Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews acts on behalf of UKRI in providing information on seal populations. NatureScot provide information in relation to protected areas. MS-LOT may also seek advice from Marine Scotland Science (MSS). MSS may provide additional details on fish farm operations and river fishery catches.

2.5 Seal licences

After determination of the applications, MS-LOT issues all licences on 1 February of each year. Licence validity can vary in length up to a maximum of one year. Licensees are required to re-apply for a seal licence annually as the numbers of seals permitted to be taken or killed under the licences must be considered yearly based on the current seal populations and trends. For each management area, SMRU provides information from the Special Committee on Seals (SCOS) on the annual maximum number of seals which could be removed from the population by all anthropogenic means (based on the Potential Biological Removal (PBR) calculation), while maintaining the population above its "Optimal Sustainable Population (OSP) size. 

2.6 Reporting under licence

Licensees are required to report any seal killed within 48 hours using the online seal management portal. Failure to comply with a licence condition is an offence. Licensees also confirm the number of seals killed on a quarterly basis. Marine Scotland publishes the numbers of seals killed on a quarterly basis on the Scottish Government website



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