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(TASMANIA) JUST IN: Newly released documents show a government staff member called for an investigation into the procedures and requirements of staff at aquaculture giant Tassal after the death of a seal in 2018 #AceNewsDesk report

TASMANIA: Blunt Force Deaths Seals to save Salmon have risen as calls for inquiry into legislated and approved animal deterrents following seal deaths: Tassal is committed to compliance with all regulations regarding seal and wildlife management around our operational areas.”Seal relocation banTasmania is to ban salmon farmer Tassal from relocating seals in the south to the state’s north by the end of the year.

WARNING: This story contains images and descriptions which may cause distress

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Footage shot by DPIPWE during its 2016 investigation into Tassal’s handling of seals shows several animals leaving a pen.

The documents also show the number of seals that are killed and injured due to the approved and legislated use of deterrents is likely to be much higher than reported.

The documents were released following a Right to Information (RTI) request on the use of seal deterrents used by salmon farm giants Tassal, Huon Aquaculture and Petuna.

They show a number of investigations were made by the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) into the deaths of seals in and around salmon leases across the state.

Seal on a metal landing platform.
Survey work on seals living near marine farming zones found a higher proportion of injured and debilitated seals than in other populations.(Supplied: DPIPWE)

Call for investigation after seal death

The investigation started in 2018 after a seal was found dead on a Tassal fish containment pen at Nubeena, alleged to be caused by a scare cap dart that was found within the abdominal cavity and intestines of the animal.

DPIPWE wildlife biologist Sam Thalmann, who performed a necropsy on the seal, indicated to his colleagues via email that, “the dart had penetrated the skin and torn through the small intestines of the seal” and was located and clearly identified in the “small intestines”.

“The Tassal staff who were present during the necropsy showed no signs of disturbance nor any indication that anything out of the ordinary had occurred to result in the injury and subsequent death,” he wrote

“It is certainly my understanding that they were strongly of the impression that this death occurred through “normal” mitigation activities and deployment of deterrent devices.

Wildlife biologist Sam Thalmann wears a beanie and blue jumper.
Wildlife biologist Sam Thalmann believes the reported seal injuries and deaths are largely underrepresented.(ABC News: Manika Champ)

“Given the outcome of this incident, the current culture and attitude of the staff, in association with an unknown number of seal deaths and subsequent identification into cause of death, I believe that some form of investigation into the procedures, adherence to a minimum requirements (ie minimum distance) and identification of the type of firearm (and available pressures) for deploying these darts is required. “

The documents show that a condition of the permit for fish farmers to use seal deterrent devices states that seal scare caps should not be discharged when a seal is within 5 metres of the permit holder.

Blunt force trauma factor in half of deaths

The documents show that in the 2018 calendar year up to October, Mr Thalmann recorded 34 dead marine mammal reports from the aquaculture industry.

“Necropsies could only be performed on 12 of the seals retrieved, with 50 per cent of these showing blunt force trauma contributing to their death,” Mr Thalmann said.

It is documented that Mr Thalmann believes the findings are likely “a large underestimate of the proportion of seals that die due to approved and legislated deterrent use”.

“This is also likely a large underestimate as many seals with injury/penetrating wounds resulting from deterrents would leave the area and die outside of the lease area,” he wrote.

Photo of beanbag ammunition used by salmon producers to deter fur seals.
Bean bag ammunition is used by salmon producers to deter fur seals.(Supplied: DPIPWE)

“I can personally testify that this appears to be the case as having performed recent survey work around seal haul-outs adjacent to marine farming zones, I have noted a proportion of injured and debilitated seals in significant higher densities than would be expected to occur at a wild haul-out.”

The documents also show the government department issued 789 seal deterrent permits over a three-year period.

Over this period, aquaculture giant Tassal used 55,798 seal crackers and 3,647 rounds of bean bags against seals, Huon Aquaculture used 16,008 crackers and 315 rounds of bean bags to deter the seals and Petuna used 3,533 seal crackers and no bean bags.

Following the findings from the necropsies, Mr Thalmann had email correspondence with his colleagues at DPIPWE to recommend the department implement a number of actions, including the banning of “scare-cap devices from firearms with multiple power settings” and further investigations to determine what tissue damage may result from scare-caps and bean bags on seals.

Seal euthanased after shooting injury 

The documents also showed in September 2019, a seal was reported to be injured but alive at a Tassal marine farming lease at Tinderbox.

An investigation into the incident indicated the seal was trying to access a fish pen when a DPIPWE wildlife ranger attempted to contain the seal in an empty fish pen and then trap or sedate the seal to remove it from the pen and transfer it to a holding cage.

The documents indicate the seal was successfully trapped and transferred to Tassal’s onshore facility at Electrona before it was examined the following morning.

Fur seal with tail of a beanbag-type projectile in its eye.
A fur seal with the tail of a bean bag projectile lodged in its eye. (Supplied: DPIPWE)

Overnight, the seal had vomited a significant amount of partly digested farmed salmon and on further examination, the seal had the tail of a beanbag hanging from between the eyelids of the closed left eye.

Wildlife officers said during email correspondence that, “there was obvious swelling of the soft tissues of the left eye, however, there was discharge weeping from the eye.”

It is documented that the beanbag projectile lodged in its eye caused permanent ocular damage and the animal was euthanased the following day.

Beanbags are lead-filled projectiles encased in a Kevlar bag that are fired to deter seals from marine farm staff and associated infrastructure.

In email correspondence, DPIPWE staff noted a conversation with Tassal about the incident, in which it was alleged the Tassal staff member said he was aware of the incident and indicated that there had been an internal investigation into the matter.

But it was found to be unintentional as it is “hard, as they are fast” and no internal disciplinary action was to be undertaken.

The documents show DPIPWE staff indicated this incident to be a compliance issue on two fronts. Firstly, they said: “Beanbags should never be discharged towards the head of a seal.”

And secondly, they claimed it is a permit requirement that injuries caused to seals are reported to a DPIPWE contact officer within one hour of the event, but it is alleged this particular injury was not called in within the time frame.

The wildlife offer said, “we believe it is highly unlikely that the shooter wouldn’t have realised the animal had been struck in the head at the time.”

Seals ‘swim off and die slowly’

Environment Tasmania said the new documents showed there needs to be an investigation by the integrity commission around the salmon industry’s treatment of seals.

An injured seal being euthanased.
An injured seal being euthanased.(Supplied: DPIPWE)

“We’ve got people working in open water, shooting weapons and exploding underwater crackers at seals, that can then swim off and die slowly and inhumanly,” Environment Tasmania’s lead marine campaigner Jilly Middleton said.

“Members of the public were finding the seals. Some had eye wounds, some had gashes to their skin, some of them were too old to tell what was going on.”

She said while government representatives continue to remind the industry of their obligations, there need to be changes to practices.

“One of the issues we’re really worried about is the misuse of the weaponry that the salmon farmers are using on the seals,” Ms Middleton said.

“One of the concerns raised in the RTI papers is there was an attitude and culture amongst the staff at the time [of one of the seal deaths] that indicated that this was normal, this was an expected outcome, this was par for the course and none of them were surprised.”

A woman standing outside.
Jilly Middleton says she’s worried about the misuse of the weaponry the salmon farmers are using on the seals(ABC News: Alison Costelloe)

Industry committed to compliance, says Tassal

A spokesperson for Tassal said the company’s primary effort is exclusion and that they do not seek to engage with wildlife except when necessary.

“However, we do operate in wild environments, and occasional wildlife interactions do occur.”

“We publicly report on our interactions with wildlife through our online sustainability reporting dashboard.”

The aquaculture giant said they dedicate resources to animal welfare and farm practices, including a $90 million rollout of sanctuary pens to strengthen the exclusion of wildlife.

“The welfare of both our fish and the marine mammals and birds that interact with our farms is of critical importance to us.”

The Minister for Primary Industries and Resources Guy Barnett said he was unaware of the findings found in the RTI documents about seal deaths and deterrents.

“We have a seal management plan and a framework that operates across the salmon and fishing industry, it’s an important framework and it should be abided by,” Mr Barnett said.

“Animal welfare is a top priority for our government, it’s a very serious matter.”

#AceNewsDesk report ……….Published: Jun.20:2021:

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