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Seals

Volume 958: debated on Wednesday 15 November 1978

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13.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement about his decision to cancel the Orkney seal cull.

I have nothing to add to the public statement that I made on 16th October, which I shall circulate in the Official Report.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the considerable concern in the fishing industry generally—not only in Scotland—about this decision? What discussions is he having with the British fishing industry about any future cull? How much money has so far been spent on killing not one seal?

The hon. Gentleman is not quite right in his last statement. A Question on that matter has already been answered. I have frequent consultations with the fishing industry, as a subsequent answer will make clear. The fishing industry wanted the cull to go ahead. I took the view that the cull was justified, but other views were expressed and I modified the cull. The whole matter is now open to public discussion. We shall have to see how we get on next year.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that millions of people in this country welcomed his statement and were delighted that the Government had retreated on the question of the cull? [Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen may not like it, but people were delighted with the decision. In fact, the Government gained as a result of their action. No one is against the concept of a cull. However, it should be done in the way that is now being discussed by the Government rather than in the way that it was to be done.

One piece of scientific information that I have learned about seals recently is that, whatever one does about them, one cannot be friends with everyone.

As this enterprise resulted in a gross waste of public funds, has the accounting officer been surcharged?

No, Sir.

Following is the statement:

"I have now reviewed the situation regarding this cull. I reaffirm the Government's long-term policy in this matter. The management plan which I am following was recommended to me by the Seals Advisory Committee which is widely representative and includes members of the Nature Conservancy Council, the Natural Environment Research Council, Universities and other bodies. They have recommended this plan in the light of the substantial increase in the population of grey seals, and it is their view that the present increase is likely to continue. I welcome the statements made by both the NCC and the NERC supporting the management plan.

"The Seals Advisory Committee has been examining the problem of the increasing number of grey seals for some seven years. None of the discussions which I have had over the past week with conservationist interests has produced any evidence to contradict the advice which I have had from the Committee and from my own scientists.

"Research has been undertaken over many years into seal behaviour, diet etc. and there is no doubt that they are consuming considerable quantities of fish which has been put at a value of some £12 million per annum. The simple facts of the matter are that seals eat fish as their main diet, mostly fish suitable for human consumption, and the more seals there are, the greater the damage done to the fish stocks. I am bound, as Secretary of State, to have regard in this situation to the interests of both the consumer and the fishermen whose livelihoods are at stake.

"I am also anxious to ensure that the future of the species is not endangered but there is absolutely no question of that being at issue, as the NCC and the NERC have confirmed.

"The advice I have had from the Seals Advisory Committee is that given the present level of the grey seal population, unless some reduction is made in the number of adults, there would have to be a very considerable increase in the level of pup culling to achieve the necessary reduction in the total stock. This increased pup culling could result in a serious upsetting of the balance of the population.

"There has been considerable attention given to the presence of a Norwegian firm in this operation. I wish to point out that the Norwegian firm is, in the main, being employed for only one part of the operation—the culling of adult seals —and this is solely because there are no local hunters equipped to do this part of the operation. If adult culling is not carried out, the need for pup culling will increase.

"The major part of the pup culling has being planned to be carried out by local hunters. Licences have been issued annually for this purpose since 1962.

"Although I believe that the scientific advice which I have been given is correct, and that the cull as envisaged in the management plan recommended by the Seals Advisory Committee should be carried out, I am conscious of the widespread public concern which exists. I have decided therefore to reduce the size of the cull this year so that everyone will have the opportunity to study the scientific evidence and to submit to me for evaluation other data which they may have available. I must stress that so far such evidence from the objectors has been absent.

"In the light of this situation and notwithstanding what I have said about the need for an adult cull, I have decided to withdraw the Norwegian firm.

"I have also decided to restrict the pup cull. In earlier years, the level of the pup cull has varied between 750 and 2,000 (in 1975). I propose that this year's pup cull in the Orkneys and the Western Isles should be at this latter level. This will mean that the management plan which has been recommended to me will require to be revised.

"I have already given an undertaking to the conservation interests that I will make public all the scientific evidence available, so that anyone who believes that better scientific data exists can submit it to me for evaluation.

"I will also ask the Seals Advisory Committee, and my own scientists, to consider any such evidence and to publish their conclusions in good time before next year's cull. At the end of the day, the policy decision must be mine, but I will consider any relevant views which are put to me."