HC Deb 12 December 1983 vol 50 cc302-3W
Mr. William Ross

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (1) if he will estimate the population of each species of seal resident in, or breeding in, the United Kingdom (a) which could be considered optimum, (b) at which the animals would be considered an endangered species, and (c) which would be considered too high;

(2) if he will estimate the population of each species of seal which either has colonies or breeds in the United Kingdom; and what are the principal breeding areas for colonies;

(3) what steps he takes, and at what intervals, to determine the United Kingdom seal populations.

Mr. Mellor

I have been asked to reply and I do so also on behalf of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland. Under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, the Secretaries of State for the Home Department and for Scotland are required to obtain scientific advice on the management of grey seals and common seals in Great Britain from the Natural Environment Research Council, which conducts annual surveys of all the major breeding colonies and three to six yearly surveys of smaller colonies. The council provides estimates of population sizes derived from these surveys to the Secretaries of State each year and later publishes the results in the council's new journal.

In Northern Ireland, seal populations are monitored by the Conservation Branch of the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland and a census of seals in Strangford lough, which accounts for 80 per cent. of the population, is carried out annually.

The total population of grey seals in British waters is estimated to be between 84,000 and 87,000, and in the waters off Northern Ireland about 40. The figures for common seals are about 20,000 and 500 to 700 respectively. The principal breeding areas for grey seals are the Orkney Islands, the Western Isles, the Inner Hebrides, the Farne Islands, the Firth of Forth, two locations on the Scottish mainland, the Copeland Islands (Co. Down) and off the N. Antrim coast. There are smaller colonies in Shetland, Cornwall, the Scilly Isles and southwest Wales. The principal breeding areas for common seals are in the Wash and in Strangford Lough with smaller colonies in the Orkneys, Shetland, the Hebrides, the east and west coasts of Scotland, the islands off the Ards Peninsula and Carlingford lough.

I am advised that, on purely scientific grounds, it is not possible to determine whether the size of a population is "too high" or "optimum". These levels depend on the relative importance which is attached to a number of different factors including biological, economic and amenity values. In general, animal populations are considered to be endangered if they are threatened with extinction. The exact population size at which this occurs will depend upon the factors which are threatening the species. Other seal species in other parts of the world have recovered after being reduced to only 500–1,000 individuals by over-exploitation. I would consider it a cause for grave concern if the British population of either seal species was reduced to a level approaching this.

Mr. William Ross

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will estimate the quantities of fish consumed by seals in United Kingdom waters annually (a) in total and (b) by each seal species; if he will break down the species of fish taken and the quantity of each; and if he will estimate (i) the quantity of such fish which would have been suitable for human consumption and (ii) its value.

Mr. MacGregor

In 1980 a three-year study aimed at improving the understanding of the interaction between grey seals and fish stocks was commissioned by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and undertaken by the sea mammal research unit of the Natural Environment Research Council.

A report on the study is currently being prepared but will not be finalised for some time. The information obtained will enable preliminary estimates to be made of the species and quantities of fish consumed by grey seals. The value of that catch will depend on current market prices but it is, of course, by no means certain that all fish eaten by seals would otherwise have been available or suitable for human consumption.

Common seals are the only other species found around our coasts and, although no detailed information concerning their feeding habits is available, their diet is known not to differ greatly from that of grey seals.

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