Dolphin protection petition helps win fish farms’ U-turn

Dolphins. Photo: Sealife Adventures

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A Seil couple’s online petition to stop the ‘legalisation’ of cruelty to dolphins has helped win a U-turn by salmon farms.

More than 30,000 people signed the petition set up by marine biologist David Ainsley and wife Jean who run Sealife Adventures.

A flurry of publicity in the media and lobbying of MSPs asking them to stop Marine Scotland from issuing European Protected Species (EPS) licences to fish farms that would allow them to use Acoustic Deterrent Devices brought about the change of heart.

The clock had been ticking, with Marine Scotland aiming to conclude the licensing process by March 1 this year.

Campaigners said if fish farms got EPS licences allowing them to use ADDs, it would have legalised disturbing and injuring dolphins, porpoises and whales.

Disturbing or injurying cetaceans is illegal under habitat and conservation regulations but Mr Ainsley says Marine Scotland had been ‘turning a blind eye’ until it gave fish farms the opportunity to apply for EPS licences.

EPS Licences can only be granted if there are no satisfactory alternatives to the use of ADDs. Campaigners say there are satisfactory alternatives: farms in Tasmania, Turkey, British Columbia – where ADDs are banned – and some here in Scotland are already using double-skinned anti-predator nets with mesh size which does not endanger wildlife.

The petition and lobbying had ‘very much played a part’ in the fish farms’ U-turn, but conservationists still had to keep watch and keep campaigning.

In an open letter to director of Marine Scotland Annabel Turpie before the U-turn was announced, campaigners claimed a model published by Marine Scotland calculating how many cetaceans will be disturbed and injured by the ADDs to be licenced was also ‘not scientifically robust’. The campaigners were also angry that EPS licence applications were not open to public scrutiny.

‘If you use the right nets, you don’t have to use ADDs. They couldn’t have issued EPS licences while there are these alternatives. I think Marine Scotland will have turned round to the farms and said sorry boys it is not going to get through. That’s why they voluntary withdrew their applications,’ said Mr Ainsley.

He added: ‘Now is the time to say to Marine Scotland they must enforce the law. There would have to be an amnesty for fish farms still using ADDs until the end of the current production cycle  because it’s important they can’t say they’ve had massive fish escapes and that it’s the fault of conservationists.’

Mr Ainsley cautioned the industry would try to bring in a new generation of lower-frequency ADDs being developed, claiming they would only target seals and not cetaceans because their hearing is different – a claim he says is ‘not strictly true’.

‘Because there are alternatives to using these devices, for the same reason, they would still not be able to be licenced to use them, so this cruelty to dolphins would still be illegal,’ he added.