The fish, with an average weight of 300g, were in a Scottish Salmon Company (SSC) farm at Portree which was due to have anti-predator netting installed this month. The remaining fish at the site will be protected by the new netting from next Monday, January 18.
A spokesperson for SSC, which is owned by Faroese salmon farmer Bakkafrost, said: “Our Portree site has recently been subject to persistent attacks from a large group of seals which, despite our best efforts, caused significant damage to one of our nets. Our staff moved quickly to repair this damage but unfortunately a number of fish escaped.
“The health and welfare of our stock is very important and no farmers want to lose their stock. All the members of our team at Portree are extremely disappointed, particularly given they have worked so diligently to maintain an excellent containment record at the site. The incident was reported immediately to Marine Scotland and other stakeholders and we are now working closely with the local fisheries trust to record any sightings and recapture stock wherever possible.
“We take these matters extremely seriously and have invested substantially in measures to ensure containment and deal with predators like seals.”
Recent Scottish government actions have reduced the methods available to fish farmers to manage predation including ending of the use of shooting by farmers, a change which will come into effect in full at the end of this month and which was partly prompted by a need to guarantee continued export access to the United States.
A ban on some acoustic deterrent devices (ADDs) is also due to take effect from March, although fish farmers believe this is premature.
Access to all measures
In a press release, the SSPO said it continues to call for Scotland’s salmon farmers to have full access to all available effective non-lethal measures if they are to fulfil their statutory duty to protect their fish.
Chief executive Tavish Scott said: “Salmon farms and seals can co-exist quite happily in the marine environment. Seals can however inflict vicious and widespread damage on salmon farms, killing significant numbers of fish in each attack. That is what has happened to The Scottish Salmon Company farm in Skye. The seals ripped open the nets, killed many fish with others escaping.
“This distressing incident shows that our farmers need access to a range of effective tools and measures to deter seal attacks and protect their livestock. Our sector is continuing to make substantial investments in new technologies and management methods which follow government regulations. Our approach is consistent with the clear commitments our member companies have made.”
A £13m problem
There are at least 132,000 seals in Scottish coastal waters. The SSPO said that from May 2019 to May 2020, around 530,000 farmed salmon worth £13 million died as a result of seal attacks in Scotland, either directly from a physical attack or indirectly from stress arising from being subjected to an attack.
In the 12 months to May 2020 Scottish salmon farming sector investment into preventing predator attacks was £8.4 million. Investment into new generation anti-predator nets accounted for £5.3m.
Anti-predation tools include ADDs, anti-predator netting, net tensioning and seal blinds. The differing dynamics of sites mean not all methods are suitable for all sites. Double netting, for example, can be difficult or impossible to tension at high-energy sites.