Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Seals, Mallydams and the Hastings small fishing fleet

Do seals harm local fishing? It’s become a much-argued local issue. Academics from Oxford University have been studying seal-human interactions by analysing data gathered from small fishing fleets around the UK, including the Hastings fleet. Richard Price reports.

Two species of seal are native to the UK: the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina), also known as the common seal, and the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus). Seals in the UK they have no natural predators but face threats from plastic pollution, climate change and entanglement in fishing nets.

Seals are native to the area of Hastings, and the South of the UK. Seal numbers are stabilising across the UK with the South Coast being one of the last areas to repopulate via natural changes in distribution from around the UK, France and Denmark. This article focuses in Q&A on the grey seal, the cause of most human-seal interactions.

The grey seal
Seals feed around the coast of the UK mainly on fish and squid. Sandeels, which are small surface-feeding non-commercial fish, form half of their diet.

Globally the grey seal is one of the rarest species of seal. The UK hosts 40% of the world’s grey seal population — which makes it very important for their conservation and protection.

Are there too many seals?
Grey seal distribution has been changing. Their range has been extending over recent decades. It was likely to have been greater before the onset of industrial fishing, after which the grey seal was nearly wiped out. Their persecution led to protective legislation that brought them back from the brink of extinction. Since the 1970s, numbers have been rising — but that makes it difficult to establish what the baseline was.

Seal-human interactions in Hastings
Seals are intelligent and inquisitive animals. They respond dynamically to what is happening in their environment which enables them to survive. Fish stocks have decreased over time and as a function of that seals sometimes change their foraging strategy by taking fish from fishers’ nets. A few individual seals from a colony can learn to predate fishing nets, which is one of the reasons why removing some of the population does not work. It just means that the interactions by a few individuals increase.

Hastings is one of the towns where fishers have reported losing catches. The frustration has resulted in Hastings’ fishers petitioning local MP Sally-Ann Hart to get rid of the seals.

Hastings has its own seal colony. A HOT reporter interviewed members of the small fishing fleet. Various claims were published including the idea that the seal colony is not native because the RSPCA’s Mallydams Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre created it by releasing rehabilitated seals.

Hastings fishingboat, 2022 (Wikimedia Commons)

Misinformation reaches Parliament

Last October, local MP Sally-Ann Hart added to the misinformation by asking the Government what it’s doing to stop a ‘growing’ seal population from ruining the town’s fish industry and fish stocks. During the debate she said, ‘Off the coast of beautiful Hastings and Rye, fishermen are suffering the impact on their fishing of a growing seal colony.’ (Hansard, 19 October 2023, col 389). She added:

Due to the nature of the fishing — small boats leave their nets in the water — sound systems to deter seals are not appropriate. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the presence of seals does not result in the decimation of our fishing communities, let alone the fish?

Three incorrect statements were added to the original misinformation:

that grey seals are decimating fish stocks,

that the Hastings colony is growing, and

that seals are decimating the fishing community.

Are grey seals in Hastings decimating fish stocks?

The scientific evidence is that grey seal populations could help restore fish stocks as it has in the North Pacific and elsewhere. They are part of the ecosystem: the interactions are complex. Climate change, overfishing and pollution are affecting fish stocks rather than grey seals. A comparison of the ratios of catches from a supertrawler, a day trawler of the type that operates from Hastings’ beach, and an adult male grey seal (chosen as they catch more than females). Supertrawlers fish off Hastings and catch up to 250 tonnes of fish daily. A day trawler catches a tonne or two, a male grey seal eats 15 pound of fish a day (0.00680389 of a tonne). A seal colony of 40 multiplied by 15 pounds is 0.2721556 of a tonne. Additionally, grey seals take a very small amount of commercially fished species.

Is the seal colony decimating our fishing communities?

The earlier statement suggested that Hastings, Rye and Eastbourne fishing communities are being destroyed by seals in Hastings and Rye. With so many different types of net and species targeted it is difficult to quantify which particular types of boat and net are affected.

The rest of the article is devoted to correcting inaccurately reported statements.

Did Mallydams create a seal colony in Hastings?

Mallydams rescue and rehabilitate such a small number of seals that it is a tiny proportion of the actual population. Any population ecologist would state that these releases make no difference whatsoever to the population. Additionally, the seals are released back to the location from which they are rescued and most do not remain in the area.

Stephen Savage, the Sussex County Recorder for sea mammals, and regional coordinator for the Sea Watch Foundation, has been monitoring seals and cetaceans since 1993. He wrote a Facebook post in which he wrote of his ‘great concern’ due to ‘inaccurate reporting’. He wrote:

There seems to be a growing consensus that the grey seal population found locally have been caused by seals being released by the RSPCA Mallydams Wood, which is not the case. All seals released by rescue centres put numbered ID tags on the seals flippers — photos, videos and first-hand observations have supported that these grey seals do not have flipper tags and have not come from the seal hospital.

Are tags causing seals to be trapped in nets?

The claim was made that Mallydams tagging seals causes them to be trapped in fishing nets. The tags are of a tried and tested type designed to pull out if they are caught in a net. The cause of seals being trapped in nets is due to the quality of them and how they are designed. The design of the nets is no longer traditional: they were changed about 30 or 40 years ago to be more labour-saving. There are seal safe nets available that have been well researched in the Baltic sea and elsewhere.

Is the seal colony growing?

Seals in Sussex are the subject of a scientific monitoring programme which has reported that the abundance is not growing. The seals at Hastings are not a viable breeding colony but are juveniles passing through. There is no evidence that the colony is growing.

Do seals take one bite of the liver of each fish before discarding it?

Stephen Savage wrote:

I can find no scientific publication that supports this. Seals actually use a lot of energy just swimming and foraging and need to return to land to haul-out to digest their food and replenish this lost energy to keep them healthy. Seals therefore need to eat fish whole, not just eating their liver.

Is there a seal colony at Hastings?
Seals need to haul-out quite often.  (That is, to leave the sea for land.)  Reasons vary but they come onto the land usually in a safe and secure place to moult or breed. Grey seals also haul-out throughout the year to rest and digest their food. The site between Pett Level and Hastings consists of seals hauling out to digest food. They need to be on land to digest food.  However, the seals are all juvenile, so it is not a viable breeding colony. The Hastings seals should be considered to be as a haul-out site rather than a seal colony.

Why is Hastings small fishing fleet being squeezed?
The reason why the fishing fleet is being squeezed is due to overfishing (the Government is allowing supertrawlers, overfishing by ignoring scientific advice). Additional factors are: climate change making some species of fish (cod for example) scarcer, pollution, and the fact that about 80% of the fishing rights in the UK are owned by about 20 families.

Future options
Wildlife tourism featuring seals has helped fishing communities elsewhere diversify. Could the haul-out site help the fishing community to generate income through tourism?  Rye Harbour run successful sea trips.

Most people want seals and want them to be a protected animal, and the community values seeing these beautiful creatures in the water. This imposes costs on small scale fisheries that cannot be ignored.

Two academics from Oxford University’s have been studying seal-human interactions by analysing data gathered from small fishing fleets around the UK including Hastings. Dr Katrina Davis of the Biology Department is one.  The other, Dr Claire Tanner, is working with the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) to run a series of workshops specifically designed to give it policy: a toolkit to help them manage or lessen seal impacts on small-scale fisheries. Dr Tanner said:

We are running them with the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) and inviting fishers from different regional areas to attend.

The workshops will be an opportunity for Hastings fishers to learn of the MMOs proposed strategies and of the factors involved and to find some suitable strategies ‘that would be also beneficial and acceptable for fishers’.

Members of Hastings small fishing fleet who want to get involved can contact Dr Tanner or Dr Davis, at or .

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Posted 07:28 Wednesday, May 22, 2024 In: Environment

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