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'It would be disastrous': People wrote to government in 1988 over concerns of a seal cull in Co Mayo

The government had ordered a seal census on the west coast to determine whether a cull was necessary.

Image: Shutterstock/Tim Zurowski

A SEAL CENSUS was ordered by the government in 1982 to determine if there should be a cull on the animal of the west coast, after complaints from fishermen that seals were damaging salmon stock, according to 1988 State Papers released this week. 

In a document dated 12 August 1982, it stated that “commercial salmon fishermen claim that seals inhabiting Irish waters cause considerable damage to salmon stock”. 

As a result, in the document, then-Minister for Fisheries and Forestries Brendan Daly announced that he would have the area of North West Co Mayo “monitored by officials of the Department so as to establish the population level of the seals in their locality” to determine whether a cull was necessary. 

“If, having regard to the conservation requirements as well as the bona fide interests of local fisherman, it is considered that a cull is necessary, it will be carried out under the Department using only humane methods,” the document stated. 

While seals are protected under the Wildlife Act 1976, licence to cull the stocks may be granted by the Minister for Fisheries and Forestry in order to control the numbers. 

Charles Haughey was Taoiseach at the time.

IMG_3161 Source: National Archives

Complaints

The announcement of the seal census was met with some backlash from environmentalists at the time. 

An undated handwritten letter sent from the Netherlands said: “Recently, I received information about an illegal seal hunt near Mayo on the west coast of Éire which took place last year, after which your government didn’t take any action against the offenders of the law.” 

The person who penned the letter said they ”also heard that there is a possibility that you may legalise a hunt each year on the same place”. 

My friends and me are very concerned about this. Many Dutch people visit Éire in their holidays because of the beautiful nature and wildlife of your country, something which is impossible to find in Holland. 

IMG_3147 Source: National Archives

In a letter addressed to Minister Daly, dated 28 September 1982, auditor of UCD’s Biological Society Padraig Duignan wrote that “although the grey seal is not an endangered species, culling without proper scientific research could have disastrous long-term effects on the population”. 

“A management plan requires thorough and ongoing research into the population dynamics of the grey seal so that the total population of breeding animals is known from year to year,” Duignan wrote. 

“This means that the population can be maintained at a certain level by culling a known number of seals each year.” 

He added that “this is in contrast with the proposed cull where an undetermined number of seals are to be culled with unknown effects on the whole population”. 

Duignan went on to later claim that the cull would be “carried out by army personnel with no prior experience of seal culling and without proper supervision”. 

IMG_3157 Source: National Archives

However, in a responding letter, the Taoiseach’s office noted that Daly “did not make a positive commitment to approve the culling of the seal population in the area, nor was there ever any question of the use of army personnel in any such operation”.

The letter outlined, as stated above, that the census was being carried out “because of strong and repeated protests by fishermen in the area of damage being caused to their salmon catches by seals”. 

The letter confirmed that a cull would not be appropriate. 

The results of this census are now to hand and reveal a considerable reduction in the seal pup population on the islands over the past couple of years. In the circumstances the Minister has decided that a cull would not be appropriate at this present time. 

A number of other letters in November were sent from An Taoiseach and his private secretary confirming that a proposed grey seal cull off the coast of Co Mayo would not take place.

2014 call for cull

The issue of culling seals on the west coast of Ireland wasn’t just an issue in the early 1980s. 

In February 2014, Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae said that the effect of a growing number of seals on the west coast on the fishing industry has reached the stage where a cull is needed. 

“I would be all for the protection of wildlife, such as seals,” he told TheJournal.ie at the time, “but this is affecting fishermen’s livelihoods”. 

The Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation echoed Healy-Rae’s concerns for fishermen, but instead recommended that some form of “management measures” need to put in place to protect the fishing industry.

However, the ISPCA’s Dr Andrew Kelly said there was “no evidence” that seals were affecting the fishing industry. 

In mid-2012, two seal heads were found at the gates of the Dingle Wildlife and Seal Sanctuary, with “RIP CULL” and “RIP I AM HUNGRY” written beneath.

number of other seals were found shot dead on the west coast in 2012, months after Deputy Healy-Rae warned Minister for the Environment that a cull was needed.

With reporting by Nicky Ryan

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