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.

5. Review of the current operation of the seal licensing system

This review covers the operation of the seal licensing system from February 2015 to August 2020. This includes application data from the 2015 to 2020 licensing period and licensing data up to the end of the 2019 licence period.

5.1 Application process

5.1.1 Seal licence applications

Since 2015, further improvements have been made to the licence application process such as the creation of the online seal management portal. The portal allows applicants to complete the application survey online and retains the information from year to year which streamlines the process for applicants, allowing MS-LOT to review the current survey data against previously submitted data, to inform licensing decisions. All information is managed online, saving time, but also allowing corrections or additional information to be added by the applicant quickly and easily. It also provides secure storage for this information. The online portal has also recently been upgraded to improve usability. Tables 2 and 3 provide an overview of the number of seals requested and granted on licences in the review period, and numbers killed under licence. 

Table 2: Number of seals requested, granted and killed on licences to protect health and welfare of farmed fish ( e.g., aquaculture).
Licence Year Number of seals
  Requested on licence applications Granted on licences Killed under licence
2015 906 510 66
2016 756 271 61
2017 755 253 44
2018 684 225 53
2019 632 235 63
2020 672 216 *

*Information is not currently available.

Table 3: Number of seal requested, granted and killed on licences to prevent serious damage to fisheries or fish farms ( e.g., river fisheries).
Licence Year Number of seals
  Requested on licence applications Granted on licences Killed under licence
2015 625 379 66
2016 419 126 38
2017 288 115 28
2018 287 108 36
2019 277 111 34
2020 297 114 *

*Information is not currently available.

Application forms can be completed either electronically or by hand, allowing flexibility for applicants. The questions and format of application forms have remained consistent since that last review. Currently, there is a separate application form for each of the two types of licences issued (protection of health and welfare, and prevention of damage to fisheries) due to the different types of information required from fish farms and river fisheries. It should be noted there is currently no proforma for applications for research purposes. Applications for research licences are made by letter to MS-LOT providing the relevant information. Since 2015, five licences have been granted to take (capture) seals for scientific, research or educational purposes. All information provided on application forms is assumed to be true and is not externally verified. 

New provisions in the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020 has removed two licensable provisions in the Act – namely protecting the health and welfare of farmed fish (S110(1)(f)) and preventing serious damage to fisheries or fish farms (S110(1)(g)). 

It is recommended that a new application form which encompasses all licensable purposes is developed for any future applications to kill or take under the provisions of S110 of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010.

5.1.2 Consultation process

There have been no changes to the statutory consultation process since the last review. Consultation is undertaken with SMRU (on behalf of UKRI) for advice on seal populations (using PBR developed by SCOS) and NatureScot for advice on protected sites. Additionally, advice is sought from MSS on information about river fisheries and fish farms. Consultees are provided with copies of the applications (with personal information removed) and provide MS-LOT with any comments or particular conditions. 

Under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (the Habitats Regulations), Habitats Regulations Appraisal (HRA) is required where there is likely significant effect on a European site. There have been some improvements in the process for undertaking HRA where these are required. Current practice by MS-LOT is to undertake a HRA for all applications with sites in the vicinity of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for seals, as advised by NatureScot. 

5.1.3 Potential Biological Removal

Potential Biological Removal (PBR) provides key scientific support for the seal licensing system by setting an upper limit for anthropogenic losses in each seal management region. This allows the seal licensing system to ensure that numbers permitted to be taken or killed under licence would not cause the wider seal population to decline to less than the optimum sustainable population size in each region. It should be noted that PBR in a given region includes all anthropogenic losses. The increasing amount of marine activities, including renewable energy construction, means the numbers of seals permitted to be taken through the seal licensing system must be managed accordingly, especially in areas with declining populations, which lead to very low PBR (e.g. Orkney for harbour seals).

MS-LOT uses the PBR to consider the appropriate number of seals of each species to grant in each of the management areas, while maintaining a suitable buffer for other anthropogenic impacts. In certain areas, the number of seals applied for, may exceed the PBR, however MS-LOT does not grant more seals than the PBR allows, and aims to keep well below the PBR.

5.1.4 Application fees

There has been no change to seal licence application fees since the last review. There is no cost associated with applying for a seal licence. This is being remains under review by Marine Scotland. 

5.1.5 Appeals

There has been no change to the process of appeals since the last review. Appeals are carried out by a panel made up of persons external to MS-LOT, usually a balance of people from within the seal licensing policy function within Marine Scotland and from other areas to ensure impartiality. The panel reviews the licensing information and appeal request. Once a decision is reached, MS-LOT and the appellant are notified. Any changes to a licence as a result of an appeal are carried out by MS-LOT, using their normal process.

There have been five appeals since February 2015, in response to which two were upheld and three were rejected.

5.2 Licences

5.2.1 Seal licences

There have been no changes to the content of the seal licences since the last review. 

Licences include a number of standard and bespoke conditions. These include the number of seals granted, the methods permitted for shooting (including firearm type and location), and specifications on numbers of seal which can be killed or taken near designated sites or in certain seasons. 

5.2.2 Seal licence returns

Since 2015, seal licence returns have been moved to the online seal management portal and the requirement to report a seal killed within 48 hours has also been introduced. Marine Scotland Compliance is notified of occurrences of a licensee's failure to report seals killed within 48 hours and this information is used to investigate and consider any action required. 

Licensees are reminded to complete the quarterly returns at the end of each quarter. These communications have been improved to clarify the potential penalties for failure to complete returns. If a return is not made, the relevant information is passed to Marine Scotland Compliance division to take appropriate measures.

All the information provided in seal licence returns is published on the Scottish Government website, as soon as possible after the returns period is over. This includes the dates of seals killed, site, and licence holder. Aggregated data by species and seal management area is also published.

5.3 Shooting of seals

5.3.1 Training of marksmen

There have been no changes to the training of marksmen since the last review. 

Marksmen are required to complete a Professional Development Award (PDA) in seal management which assesses their skills and experience for operating as marksmen under the seal licensing system. 

5.3.2 Checking of marksmen

In order for a marksman to be suitable to participate in the seal licensing scheme, they must hold a PDA in seal management (see above) and an appropriate firearms certificate. Until 2018, MS-LOT checked that both of these elements were in place with the relevant issuing authority. 

After discussions with Police Scotland in 2018, MS-LOT has ceased the process of checking fire arm certificates, as it was agreed to be unnecessary under the requirements of the licensing system. Similarly checking the PDA certificate has also been stopped. As with all other application information, it is implied by the signing of the application form, that applicants have provided correct and valid information throughout including marksmen details. 

5.3.3 Carcass recovery

There have been no changes to the carcass recovery requirements or process since the last review. It should be noted that this was an element requiring improvement at the time of the last review. 

It is a condition of the seal licence that, where possible, reasonable steps should be taken to recover carcasses. In this context, recovery refers to retrieval of carcasses by licensees, who are also encouraged to report the carcass to the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme (SMASS), who may collect the carcass. The number of carcasses recovered remains low with between one and three carcasses (3-4% of killed seals) recovered annually between 2015 and 2018. A total of 11 carcasses (11% of killed seals) were recovered in 2019, showing this trend may be improving.

Seal carcasses can provide important information on seal populations and post-mortem can be used to confirm the animal was killed humanely. Even if the licensee cannot recover or SMASS is unable to collect the carcass, either due to resource limitations or carcass quality, the shooting should still be reported so it can be noted and this can be cross-checked if the carcass is later recovered or found elsewhere.

As part of efforts to make improvements, MS-LOT issued a further reminder letter alongside the 2020 licences issued in February 2020. This letter reminded licensees of their duty to recover carcasses and details of how to do so, in addition to reminding to report recovered carcass to SMASS

It is recommended that further work is required to encourage recovery of seals killed and reporting to the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme (SMASS).

5.4 Code of practice

The latest version of the Seal Management Code of Practice was published in 2018, with updated contact information. The content of the code has not been updated for some time and some information remains out of date. The information in the code itself remains relevant but should be reviewed to ensure that the scientific understanding underpinning it is still up to date. The code also requires updating to reflect the changes in licensable purposes allowed since the passage of the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020.

It is recommended that the Seal Management Code of Practice should be updated to reflect the most up to date science and the changes to the purposes for which licences can be granted.



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