Image DPIPWE RTI 059 Seal Deterrents
When Murder and Torture are All in a Day's Work
JOIN THE FIGHT
Here, seals are sometimes referred to as 'maggots' , and it is standard operating procedure to shoot them with riot gear, deter them at close range with explosives, trap them, relocate them, or kill them. How did we get here, you may wonder?
Prior to the 2000s, it was customary for the burgeoning salmon industry to kill seals that were harassing their fish. But as one may imagine, this was not popular with the public. Here's a few quotes from a UTAS Master's thesis on the subject :
L, beanbag round lodged in a seal's eye at Tassal Tinderbox salmon farm. R, a beanbag round. DPIPWE RTI 059
"a Departmental Manager said that 'buying a fillet of salmon with a free seal flipper wasn't going to be a good marketing ploy'" (page 25)
"I never liked shooting. I used to hate it. I nearly got out of the industry because of it to be honest with you" (page 26)
"It was in response to the shooting of seals. I recall that people were shooting and that wasn't acceptable, so then the fish farms said 'Well you've got to do something'." (page 26)
"The only fly in the ointment, so to speak, in all of this is that there are some animals in the population now that are recidivist animals. These are generally older bulls and it seems to us that they are very habituated. They are going to be practically impossible to change in their behaviour. So we have this transition period where we have to wait either for these animals to die naturally or — this is something we have put forward — that recidivist animals should be destroyed ... And regulation notwithstanding, there is nothing sacred about a small number of animals." (pg. 48)
Relocating seals as a practice grew organically as a preferred option to killing, and by 2003 some 1200 seals were being relocated in a year . It was just a short-term solution, however. Most were back within two weeks, some in two days. Young male seals, you see, will do literally anything to find a banquet to buff up their body, so they can become competitive to win a harem of females. Otherwise, as it was put to me by an expert on these matters, "they spend their life on bachelor rock".
To deter these seals, other, more immediate ploys are used: beanbag projectiles, seal crackers, and scare caps. Beanbags are kevlar-wrapped 'sock' of lead shot, fired out of a 12-guage shotgun. These are typically used by police where lethal force is not required; however, they can break ribs, crush the larynx, break the neck, penetrate the skull, or cause internal bleeding. Seal crackers are medium-sized underwater explosives. We have been told that sometimes people have put these into the mouth of a salmon and tossed the fish to a seal; these bombs cause unspeakable injuries to these seals. At close range (not in the seal's mouth), they shatter bones, break ear drums, and herniate brain tissue. Scare caps are darts fired from a tranquiliser gun, which explode on impact.
Skip ahead to today. In late June 2021, an incendiary collection of documents was made public by the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) under the Right to Information Act 2009. These documents detail what can only be described as systematic animal cruelty by Tasmania's salmon farming industry. Below we detail some of the shocking revelations, or get the whole 352-page document here: DPIPWE RTI 059 - Right to Information Disclosure on Seal Deterrents.
Marine Mammal Deaths in Salmon Industry - Screengrab (p. 293, DPIPWE RTI), internal DPIPWE email:
Two of the numerous cases of animal cruelty by the Tasmanian salmon farming industry are particularly ghastly, and without excuse on any level. The fact that these appear to be 'permitted and unpunished' is beyond reason. This is what you support with every bite of Tasmanian salmon that has been sea-farmed.
July 2018 Tassal Seal Death from Scare Cap Dart
A briefing memo obtained in a Right-to-Information request to DPIPWE revealed the following details about the death of a seal at Tassal's Nubeena farm on 29 June 2018. "... All permitted employees may also use a seal scare cap which is fired through an approved firearm. ... persons must not fire a seal scare cap within five meters of a seal due to the risk it poses to the animal. ... it is not possible to penetrate the skin of a seal when it is shot with a seal scare cap at a distance greater than five meters. ... [at necropsy it was found that] The cause of death was a scare cap dart found within the abdominal cavity and intestines. The dart had penetrated the skin and torn through the small intestines of the seal. This led to perionitis and systemic inflammation and secondary pneumonia. The dart was located and clearly identified in the small intestines." (DPIPWE page 322 of 352 RTI) . The RTI documents demonstrate that the recommendations stemming from this included (1) That the receipt of this information be noted, and (2) that approval is granted to conduct inquiries to determine compliance and gather information to identify the circumstances of the seal's death. Point one was officially "Noted", while point two was "Not Agreed". It does not appear from the documentation that any further action was taken.
September 2019 Tassal Shooting of a Seal in the Eye with Beanbag Bullet
Documentation in the DPIPWE RTI revealed that an injured seal was reported by Tassal at its Tinderbox farm on 13 September 2019, with a beanbag round fully lodged in its left eye socket, with the tails of the beanbag hanging out between its eyelids. The seal was anaesthetised and examined, "After beanbag removal, the globe of the eye was palpated to be deflated with a significant deficit to the cornea" (p. 203). The seal was euthanased and sent to landfill at Copping.
On 15 October of the previous year, Tassal notified the DPIPWE to say they would cease using beanbag rounds in their current form and were seeking an alternative. That intent, it would appear, was merely aspirational.
These are not the only breaches, mind you. It does not appear from the documentation that any enforcement action was taken on any of these breaches of the Animal Welfare Act or of Tassal's Seal Deterrent Permit.
Further, it appears that even non-blinding or non-lethal force of these merely kill slowly. According to an email from Noy Industries (DPIPWE RTI page 320), "beanbag bullets require extraction, for several reasons. Being a low-velocity projectile, it cannot be considered sterile, increasing the risk of infection. Also, the synthetic fabric can cause a local inflammatory reaction similar to gossypiboma. Lastly, the physical characteristics of the beanbag make it more likely to drag skin and clothing fragments into the wound... lung resection or pulmonary trichotomy was required. The scope of these injuries raises significant public health considerations as they have led to injury, disability and even death" 
"When livelihoods are at stake it is easy to see how practices — indeed the whole process — can be justified, and the survival of the programme becomes an end in itself. It is ironic that in a department ostensibly committed to conservation I am permitted to trap, kill and harass wildlife and my department gives permits to others such as farmers, aquatic and terrestrial, to do likewise" .
Must we accept these as the only options, cruelty or killing? Certainly there must be a better way. (Like... um... maybe... remove the fish from the seals to land-based, fully recirculating facilities?)
Above, colony of Australian Fur Seals Arctocephalus pusillus at Friar Island, Tasmania - JJ Harrison CC BY-SA 2.5
Systemic Cruelty to Native Seals
With every bite of salmon, we are giving our implicit consent to cruelty
What do you do if your only options are to be gruesomely cruel to an animal or to kill it? From the Tasmanian salmon farming industry's point of view, they have one hell of a seal problem. But from critics' point of view, the seals -- and all of nature, really -- have one hell of a fish farming problem.
The Australian Fur Seal was hunted to near-extinction in the 1800s but has rebounded its population. The Fur Seal is a protected species throughout its range of southeastern Australia. Its unpalatable treatment by the salmon industry has come under fire for a long time.
Most people would delight at the thought of seeing a seal. But if you work in the Tasmanian salmon farming industry, it's a different story.