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'We all want to see a solution, but nobody wants to see these animals get their heads blown off'

Minister Darragh O’Brien distanced himself from a pilot scheme he referenced in the Dáil.

A grey seal pictured in Howth, Co Dublin.
A grey seal pictured in Howth, Co Dublin.
Image: Shutterstock

MINISTER DARRAGH O’Brien has said this afternoon that his department has “no plans for a general cull of seals” and also distanced himself from a scheme that could provide licences for fishermen to shoot “problem seals”.

The minister’s clarification comes following a Dáil question last week by Michael Healy-Rae TD, who asked O’Brien about what the government was doing to “address the seal population problem” in Kerry.

O’Brien, who is Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, responded by saying that five Section 42 applications have been made this year in relation to seals.

  • With habitats in decline, our colleagues at Noteworthy want to find out if the Government is adequately protecting our natural world? Support this project here.

Such applications allow for steps to be taken to stop protected wild animals from causing environmental damage.

In his reply, O’Brien said that three of the applications related to the shooting of seals from boats.

“There are concerns about this approach to seal management, given the potential safety concerns arising from using high-powered rifles on moving platforms,” the minister stated.

Nonetheless, my department is examining the potential for a pilot scheme which would test this approach and determine its efficacy in protecting fishermen’s catches.

The minister’s comments were reported by a number of news outlets with Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust telling the Irish Examiner that such an approach would be “insane”.

In his tweets today, the minister appeared to distance himself from the pilot scheme, saying he “would not sign off on any pilot scheme which would involve fishermen shooting seals from a boat”.

A number of fishermen from the Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation (IFPO) who spoke to TheJournal.ie today also shared the view that the idea was “madness”. They also wanted to be clear however that the seal population is becoming a problem.

Patrick Murphy, a fisherman of 28 years from Castletownbere who is CEO of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation, says there has been much misinformed commentary since the story of the minister’s comments broke.

He argues the Irish Wildlife Trust has tried to point the finger at over-fishing depleting fish stocks but that there is little evidence to back this up.

“If they are saying that the fish stocks are decimated? How is it that the seal population is growing, what are they eating? It doesn’t add up,” Murphy says.

Especially from the work that I do and the involvement I have with advisory councils, working with our members, the EU Parliament and the Commission, they’re putting up reports contrary to what that man is saying.

In his Dáil reply, O’Brien said there are about 8,000-10,000 grey seals and about 5,000 harbour seals in Ireland. He compared it to Scotland where there are estimated to be over 100,000 grey seals. 

Murphy says that official estimates of the Irish seal population wildly underestimate how many there actually are.

He adds that managing the Irish seal population should be the same as any other wild animal and should be treated with the same seriousness.

Look, there is a problem with the seals. Just like when there’s a problem with the deer population or when there’s been a problem with badgers, or when there’s a problem with foxes or when there’s a problem with dogs running wild and worrying sheep. Nature is nature.

“Instead of these crazy stories and people shouting off the top of our heads without actually backing up what they’re saying, they should be going to the people with the proper information and the people you should be talking to are the Marine Institute and National Parks and Wildlife Service.”

Murphy says there have been several cases of hungry seals attacking swans and he also pointed to an incident abroad where a seal grabbed a young girl from a dock.

“The problem is that there are so many seals out there now there’s no natural predators for these and this population of animals is going unchecked. There’s going to be huge repercussions for this if it continues that way.”

There was a video that was sent to me about a seal that was hungry and decided to tear a swan to pieces in the River Lee, eat it from underneath the river and kill it in agony. And not an isolated incident.

Murphy says the problem of the seal population is not just one for fishermen and that people need to realise that.

You’re starting to run into ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ but the bottom line is that these animals are not pets. They might look like cute and cuddly things but these animals are known to be cannibals and eat their own pups, and that’s been well documented.

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But despite feeling that the issue needs to be addressed, Murphy is strongly against any suggestion that fishermen should be shooting seals.

He cites the danger of using rifles on a moving vessel and the problem of dead seals that would be washed up onshore.

In Canada, they have a drug that makes the seals infertile. That is a proper solution. The drug is delivered by a dart and they have a 90-95% success rate. It’s essentially birth control and it lasts about three years.

“We all want to see a solution but nobody wants to see these animals get their heads blown off. Would you like to be walking down a beach someday with your kids and the next thing you see is a dead carcass with its head blown apart? Horrific.”

So whether there is a problem with seals or not, shooting them certainly does not seem like the correct  solution.

A fact that politicians from several parties have made clear today.

Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore told TheJournal.ie that “a more holistic” approach is needed and that fishermen shooting seals would likely be unsafe.

A) I don’t think the solution will solve anything and B) you have to ask is that solution safe? We do have to take those considerations in and I know, the minister said that the National Parks and Wildlife are going to be looking at it. I don’t know if they’re doing a study on the impact of seals on fisheries, but we really need to be taking a more holistic look at how we manage our fisheries, both inshore and offshore.

Green Party councillor for Cobh Alan O’Connor also said that the pilot scheme as discussed would be a step backwards.

“Any such pilot scheme would be a retrograde step in our attitudes toward and treatment of wildlife, and they’re both bad enough already,” he said.

I know licences have been issued in the past for the killing of seals, and this practice, in any form, should be discontinued. There is a biodiversity crisis and it is indeed being manifested in decreasing catches of fish, but seals are not to blame.

Green Party MEP Grace O’Sullivan also made a similar argument: 

Our dwindling fish stocks are not happening primarily because of a rise in the already threatened numbers of seals. They are happening because our overall marine abundance has been decimated because of a collapse of the ocean ecosystem due to climate and environmental challenges and previously unchecked over-fishing. 

“Fishers and fishing communities need to be supported as we transition into more sustainable ways of making a living from our oceans. Further destruction is not the answer to this problem. Long-term solutions must be put in place,” she added. 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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