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Protection of Seals

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the protection of seals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am delighted to have secured this debate. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for all her hard work on the subject of seal welfare. I was proud to sponsor her Seals (Protection) Bill last year. I hope this debate might offer a chance to discuss this vital topic.

Ensuring the protection and welfare of seals is a dual process of education and legislation. Seals are rare enough that their presence is a novelty to many communities, making information and guidance essential. However, there will always be individuals who, for whatever reason, do not mind disturbing wildlife and do not care about the impact of their actions on the ecosystem. In the light of that, I urge the Government to amend the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to make the intentional or reckless disturbance of seals an offence. This would give seals the same protections as whales and dolphins, and would bring England and Wales in line with existing seal protection legislation in Northern Ireland and Scotland, creating a consistent framework across the UK.

The issue of seal welfare first came to my attention two years ago, when the riverside near Hammersmith bridge in the north of my constituency became home to a curious and excitable seal pup. Nicknamed Freddie Mercury for his love of the spotlight, he quickly became a treasured feature of the local community. The return of seals to the River Thames was a joy, not just to local people, who loved to watch Freddie sunbathe and play, but to campaign groups, who saw their presence as a sign that the Thames was finally recovering from decades of pollution. While seals are rare in my constituency of Richmond Park, whenever they are sighted they always capture the public’s attention.

Sadly, just a few weeks after arriving on our shores on 21 March 2021, Freddie was attacked by a passing dog. Although onlookers intervened to try to save him, he had already had his flipper broken and suffered horrific wounds. Two days later, Freddie died. The owner of the dog that killed Freddie was not a callous person. Had she been aware of Freddie’s presence and the need to keep her dog on a lead, she would have done so. Unfortunately, Freddie’s story is not uncommon. Almost every day seals are injured or killed by our negligence. In many cases, these incidents are entirely preventable. I have been encouraged to see that, since Freddie’s death, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has provided support and funding for a number of initiatives to educate the public about seal welfare. I also welcome the introduction of the marine and coastal wildlife code last month and hope that the Department will continue its work to spread best practice and behaviour to communities.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. As he is here, I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who was incredibly supportive of the Seals (Protection) Bill, which I introduced in February 2022. Although the code she has referenced is welcome, it is still only advisory, so does she agree that we need legislation such as the Seals (Protection) Bill, which would amend the existing legislation, to protect seals from intentional or reckless disturbance?

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention; that was the point I was about to make. As well as the education initiatives, which have been so welcome, we need more progress on the legislative side of this issue.

Just a few weeks after Freddie’s death, a BASE jumper performed a jump directly above a group of seals in north Wales. Despite being warned of the threat he posed to local wildlife, he went ahead with the jump, causing a mass stampede of seals into the sea. That kind of disturbance may seem relatively harmless, but it can be catastrophic for the animals involved. It disrupts the pups’ feeding, reduces their chances of surviving the cold winter months and leaves adults stressed and tired. Extreme cases can result in injury or death. When startled, some seals will do anything to hide from suspected predators, throwing themselves off rocky ledges towards the oceans, breaking jaws and flippers. Unable to swim or eat, seals injured in this way will die soon after.

Freddie’s death and the stampede in north Wales reinforce the need for a dual approach whereby education and legislation are implemented hand in hand to ensure the safety of seals in Britain’s waterways.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for the way she is setting it out. Angel Bay, in my north Wales constituency, is well known for its seal population. In fact, this debate is extraordinarily timely, as today I have been contacted by constituents who are concerned because a film crew are out there. I happen to know that they are supported by the North Wales Wildlife Trust. Will she join me in thanking groups such as the North Wales Wildlife Trust and the many volunteers who look after these colonies and help to balance the important demand for education of the public with the protection of these remarkable creatures?

The hon. Member is absolutely right. We have a fantastic group of voluntary organisations in this country that are really dedicated to protecting the interests of seals and ensuring their welfare. It is great news to hear that the film crew in his constituency are working closely with the North Wales Wildlife Trust, but we also have organisations such as the Seal Research Trust, Seal Watch and the Seal Alliance. There is a whole group of organisations doing really valuable work in this area.

We have a special responsibility on behalf of the rest of the world to ensure that we protect these rare creatures. The United Kingdom is home to more than a third of the global grey seal population. We are a sanctuary for seals in Europe, and we should have legal protections in place to ensure that they are not harmed by our actions. Beyond our global responsibility, introducing a ban on seal disturbance would safeguard the current economic benefits brought by these creatures and encourage further responsible, sustainable seal-based tourism.

I support what the hon. Lady is trying to do. On the point about numbers, I represent North Norfolk, which has some of the largest seal colonies in the whole of Europe. Off Blakeney Point, we have 3,000 pups born every single year. In the east of my constituency, the Friends of Horsey Seals does an incredible job at looking after seals all year round. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we need to bring in more protections. The Marine Management Organisation can quite often create byelaws. If the Minister is unable to create legislation to deal with this issue, I wonder whether the MMO could introduce byelaws in certain locations to help to stop seal disturbances.

The hon. Member is absolutely right. I am quite certain that more can be done at every level of government, but he is absolutely right to make the point about certain sensitive locations in his constituency. If we are not able to progress with legislation on a national level, local opportunities should be pursued. Perhaps that is something the Minister might like to address in his remarks.

Coastal tourism in Great Britain is estimated to generate £17.1 billion in spending and support 285,000 jobs in seaside towns. Those jobs are a vital source of employment in many coastal towns, which often suffer from high levels of deprivation and unemployment. Seal watching has already become a mainstay of the tourist industry in Scotland and, with the right protections in place, could bring huge value to struggling coastal communities across England and Wales. In 2015, the National Trust found that 39% of visitors to the UK coastline came with the intention of getting close to nature and wildlife. In Norfolk, nearly 80,000 people a year are estimated to visit the seal colony at Horsey, while certain seals in Devon have developed a cult following among tourists, with their own social media pages and supporter groups.

Seals are uniquely well suited as tourist attractions. Unlike other marine megafauna, they are found in predictable locations, reside in an open habitat and can be seen in all seasons. If managed correctly, seal watching could boost tourism across the UK coastline and increasingly become a valuable source of revenue for British tourism.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I want to highlight the work of the Seal Research Trust in Cornwall. At Mutton Cove, we have a fantastic number of seals and some great work is done. Further to the point made earlier, does she think that, as well as the MMO potentially having powers to introduce byelaws, the inshore fisheries and conservation agencies could also do so; and that, rather than having an offence for disturbance, it might be better to create an obligation on certain marine agencies to give consideration to seals when designating byelaws?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which demonstrates that there are many routes to achieving the goal that we all want. Perhaps the Minister will address that point in his closing remarks.

Unfortunately, badly managed tourism and inappropriate individual behaviour can threaten this industry. According to data gathered by the Seal Research Trust, 68% of the time that humans are present near seals, the animals have been disturbed. Continued disturbances and a persistent human presence in close proximity to seal habitats can mean the permanent abandonment of formerly well-used habitats, behaviour alterations and reduced survivorship for the whole local population. For that reason, it is crucial that public and private businesses are issued with more than simple voluntary guidance. They must be bound by law to uphold certain standards; otherwise, we may see fewer seals in our seas in years to come.

The damage caused by human disturbance may not be immediate or obvious, but it is very real. Without protection, some seal colonies will be abandoned, costing communities money and throwing the local ecosystem into chaos. Like most British marine life, seal populations are under intense pressure. Although their numbers have boomed in recent years, they must increasingly contend with litter in the ocean, changing prey patterns and extreme weather. However, unlike addressing most environmental issues, improving conditions for seals would be extremely simple for the Government. Reduced rates of disturbance would allow more seal pups to survive until maturity, and would leave adults to properly rest and recuperate between trips to the ocean.

In 2021, the Government committed to becoming a global leader in animal welfare, and to setting high standards for others across the world to follow. Although those are commendable aims, many of my constituents were heartbroken when the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill and the Animals Abroad Bill were set aside. They were hoping to see a genuine commitment to the protection of animals, but so far they have unfortunately been let down. Given that two of the Government’s three flagship animal welfare Bills have now been scrapped, I hope that the Department has time to revise its current guidance and create some small pieces of legislation that will show that the Government have not entirely abandoned their commitment to animal rights.

Charities such as the Seal Research Trust, Seal Watch and the Seal Alliance are already doing fantastic work to educate the public. A huge amount of effort goes into their work of spreading good practice. I want to recognise the dedication of my constituent Mary Tester, who is in the Public Gallery, and Sue Sayer from the Seal Research Trust. Their commitment to seal welfare is commendable, and they have done so much to inform and educate people visiting or living near seal habitats. Unfortunately, despite their tireless work, it takes only one bad tour operator or persistently uncaring person in each area frequented by seals to cause serious damage to the local population.

In the coming decades, marine life will be stressed by warming seas, plastics in our oceans and the effects of decades of over-fishing. By creating stronger protections for seals now, we can give them the best chance of surviving the difficult years ahead and ensure that future generations have the opportunity to see these wonderful creatures in the wild for years to come.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing the debate. We have a rich wealth of marine life in the UK, and it is important that we continue to raise such issues and champion the protection of those species.

The UK Government have a strong track record in ensuring that protection and management measures are in place for marine species. As the Minister with responsibility for fisheries, I fully acknowledge the fishing industry’s expertise and stewardship of the marine environment. I recognise its concerns about the potential impact of environmental protections on livelihoods.

The British coastline is home to two globally important populations of seals: a significant 38% of the world’s population of grey seals, and 30% of European harbour seals. Seals play an important role in the marine ecosystem, but they face a list of threats, including pollution, entanglement, marine plastic and debris, climate change and, as the hon. Lady said, disturbance from human interaction.

None the less, we have a comprehensive suite of protections in place for seals, including the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 and the Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, which make it an offence to capture or kill a seal. Seal shooting licences and the shooting of seals, which were previously allowed under the “netsman’s defence” provision in the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, have been banned since 2021. The Act is equally applicable in inland waters, rivers, coastal areas and territorial waters.

It is also an offence to take, injure or kill a seal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Act makes it an offence for anyone to disturb any animal that is recognised as a designated feature in a site of special scientific interest. For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) said, in Norfolk there are two SSSIs designated for harbour seals: the Wash and the north Norfolk coast. Seals uniquely occupy both marine and terrestrial spaces. Seal spotting at beaches and estuaries is a popular pastime for coastal visitors.

Together with the Seal Alliance, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched the “Give Seals Space” campaign in 2021, to help to raise awareness of the impact of disturbance on seals, and the importance of keeping dogs under close control. Earlier this year, we also published England’s first national marine and coastal wildlife code. The code provides further targeted guidance for coastal visitors on marine species and activities.

The Government recognise that seals interacting with fishing gear and eating fish can be a problem for some sections of the fishing industry. I have also heard concerns directly from the industry that seals can stress aquaculture species in pens, such as salmon. That is why we work closely with the seafood industry, as we develop non-lethal deterrents and implement protections.

In 2022, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations published the marine wildlife bycatch mitigation initiative, setting out how we will work collaboratively with the fishing industry and stakeholders to minimise and, where possible, eliminate the bycatch of sensitive marine species. DEFRA also worked alongside the Marine Management Organisation to fund the development of non-lethal methods to help prevent negative seal-fishery interactions and costly damage to fishing gear. The MMO has been working with the fishing industry to test the use of targeted acoustic startle technology as a seal deterrent. I am pleased to say that it is yielding promising results for limiting seal interactions for specific fisheries. A full report on that is due to be published shortly, and we are considering the next steps that we can take to address the issue under the Clean Catch UK programme.

The UK marine strategy provides a framework for assessing and taking measures to achieve and maintain good environmental status in our seas. It covers a range of biodiversity and marine environment indicators, which include a seal abundance and distribution indicator. Overall, GES for seals has been partially achieved. We will also continue to be at the forefront of marine protection. We are developing a well-managed network of marine protected areas. We have recently designated the first three highly protected marine areas in English waters. Sites protecting seals include Berwickshire and north Northumberland, which have MPAs protecting grey seals, and the Wash and north Norfolk coast, where the MPA also protects harbour seals, as I mentioned earlier.

As a final point, we can only protect and manage the marine environment effectively when we do so in collaboration with the countries with which we share the ocean. I am proud that the UK is a leading voice for the protection of marine mammals internationally.

I am listening to the Minister with great interest. It is undeniable that the Minister and the Department are doing what they can to enhance the protection of seals, particularly through measures in the fishing industry, as he has spoken about at length. However, my Bill—the foundation of today’s debate—is about humans and their interaction with seals, and the disturbance and harassment they cause. There are still many campaigners, including those in the Public Gallery and those who have made representations in the past, who feel that not enough is being done to stop the intentional harassment of seals. Although the things the Minister is outlining in his speech are wonderful, he has not addressed the point that a great number of people are still disturbing seals, causing them great harm.

That is something that the Government recognise. We clearly do not want to see that disturbance by members of the public. That is why, as I said earlier, together with the Seal Alliance, in spring 2021 we launched the new Government-backed “Give Seals Space” campaign to help to raise awareness of the impact that human disturbance can have on seals, and to try to reduce it. To help to address rising numbers of summer visitors to coastlines and minimise the disturbance, in May 2023, DEFRA published England’s first national marine and coastal wildlife code. It is about educating members of the public to ensure that they are aware that their interactions with seals can disturb and have a negative impact.

I am conscious that we are potentially close to a Division, so the Minister will want to wind up soon. He is right that there is a comprehensive set of legislation dealing with the injuring, killing or taking of a seal. On the issue of disturbance, however, there is potentially a gap. We can do awareness raising campaigns —I was responsible for introducing those at the time—but sometimes there may be recreational tourist boats, for instance, that cause a disturbance. Allowing inshore fisheries and conservation authorities the power to introduce certain byelaws to manage that activity could make a big difference.

I pay tribute to all the work my right hon. Friend did as Secretary of State to move us forward in this area. Our ears are always open to new ideas, and this debate has played a significant part in ensuring that the Government are tuned into some of the thoughts of colleagues across the House.

We are seeing increasing public awareness, and we are carrying out industry engagement. Innovation is also going to help, and we have a range of legislative, licensing and spatial conservation measures in place. I am sure there is still more to do, but I am proud of what the UK has done to deliver in this space. I thank Members from across the House for engaging in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.