Existing Seal Conservation Measures
In response to local declines in common seal numbers, the Scottish Government introduced conservation orders under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 to provide additional protection on a precautionary basis for vulnerable local populations of common seals. In September 2004, the Conservation of Seals (Scotland) Order 2004 to cover common and grey seals in the Moray Firth, and in March 2007, the Conservation of Seals (Scotland) Order 2007 to cover common seals only in the Northern Isles and Firth of Tay.
The Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 introduces provisions for existing orders to continue, and for new ones to be introduced administratively as Seal Conservation Areas. The repeal of the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 on 31st January 2011 means that the existing orders will cease if not replaced by Seal Conservation Areas. The Scottish Government intends therefore to continue these existing orders in the form of Seal Conservation Areas from 1 February 2010.
Seal Conservation in the Western Isles
The Special Committee on Seals (SCOS) Report 2009 noted a long term decline (35%) between 1996 and 2008 in the population of common seals in the Western Isles. The report indicated that August counts of common seals in the Outer Hebrides have declined at an average annual rate of approximately 3%. Although this rate of decline is not as severe as in some other parts of Scotland (Shetland, Orkney and the Firth of Tay), it has continued over 12 years. The highest count was in 1996 (2,820) and the latest count in 2008 (1,804) with the overall decline since then 35%.
SCOS recommended that seal conservation measures be considered for the Western Isles. On 9 June 2010, Marine Scotland consulted the Scottish Seals Forum, the main stakeholders group, which supported introduction of conservation measures for common seals in the Western Isles at an early date.
This will be achieved by the introduction of a Seal Conservation Area for common seals in the Western Isles under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 when its seals provisions are implemented on 31 January 2011. This will remain in place until such time as concerns about this local population are resolved.
This is the most effective way to reduce human pressures on the common seal population. Where problems of seal damage occur it will still be possible for fish farms, DSFBs and other fishery interests to apply to Marine Scotland for licences to shoot fixed numbers of common seals under the new seal licensing system but any such licences will take into account the vulnerable condition of the local common seal population and the existence of this Seal Conservation Area.
The next SCOS Report for 2010 is expected towards the end of the year. The Scottish Government has produced a series of frequently asked question and answers on the seal conservation areas.