A former salmon farm manager was fined £800 at Lerwick Sheriff Court after admitting setting nets which could have resulted in the unlawful killing of seals.
Graham McNally, 52, of Sandveien, Lerwick, committed the offence while he worked as a regional fish farm manager for Meridian Salmon Farms.
He pleaded guilty to using prohibited, non-selective nets at the salmon company’s Cloudin site in Vaila Sound when he appeared before sheriff Philip Mann today. Doing so could have resulted in the death of grey or common seals as they hunted out valuable salmon stocks.
McNally is the first person in the UK to be convicted of the offence under the Conservation (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1994 following a police raid and an investigation by the Scottish SPCA. The offence took place between 16th March 2011 and 1st August 2011.
The court heard insufficient care was taken to ensure nets were properly weighted to ensure a minimum danger could have been presented to seals or other wildlife.
McNally was fined despite the sheriff accepting he had not intended to deliberately target seals through his actions. His ruling followed a lengthy submission from defence agent Martin Sinclair.
The sheriff recognised a “tension” between the salmon industry and conservation groups. “I’m not looking at the option of imprisonment. I believe this matter can be dealt with by way of the imposition of a financial penalty,” he told McNally.
“It’s clear that there’s a significant tension between the fish farming industry and conservation interests. But you are not somebody who deliberately targeted seals for the joy of targetting seals. You are not someone who has gone seeking out seals to put them to death.
“Your motivation was clearly, in my view, to preserve the health and welfare of the fish stocks for which you were responsible. It was not for any personal gain, but for the benefit and gain of your employers.”
Sheriff Mann noted no seals or other wildlife were killed, and added the actions were for the “benefit and gain” of his employers. Adding that the offence had been “technical”, he said: “I am not concerned about punishment for what has been done, but more by sending out a message of deterrent to others.”
He said the maximum fine he could impose was one of £5,000, but added the offence was at the lower end of the scale. “Had it not been for your plea I would have fined you £1,200.”
A not guilty plea from McNally’s co-accused Ross Morrison, 41, of Union Cottages, Lerwick, was accepted by prosecutor Tom Dysart from the Crown Office’s wildlife and environmental crime unit.
Commenting on the investigation and court case, Scottish SPCA chief superintendent Mike Flynn said: “We welcome today’s conviction, which is a landmark for seal conservation in Scotland and the UK.
“Common seal numbers are decreasing and the illegal trapping and killing of seals is contributing to their decline. We wish to thank the police and Scottish Natural Heritage for their assistance in our investigation.
“This case highlights that we will work tirelessly to pursue anyone involved in wildlife crime. We urge members of the public to contact our animal helpline on 03000 999 999 if they have any concerns in relation to the illegal killing of seals in and around Scottish waters. All information is treated in strict confidence and can be provided anonymously.”
• For full story see this week’s Shetland Times.