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Fishermen demand massive cull as grey seals eat away their net profits

A CURSE on fishermen or an untapped eco-tourism resource? Ireland's grey seal population, which is threatening one industry, could beckon the start of another.

Tension over the damage seals are doing to the trawling industry is rising in fishing communities along the western seaboard and there are now calls for a cull of seals.

Fishermen claim the seals are stealing fish from their nets and costing them thousands of euro in lost earnings. They say there are simply too many seals and it's time for a cull, a step that has already taken place in Canada and Scotland. Bord Iascaigh Mhara is taking the matter seriously and indicated it is to carry out a survey on grey seals.

Irish Seal Sanctuary (ISS) biologist Brendan Price acknowledged there was "a serious problem" and said his organisation would be "pushing for fishermen to be compensated for fish lost to seals".

However, fishermen insist that the only solution to a problem they say has decimated their incomes is a cull of the grey seal -- a protected species in European waters.

"It's gone to a stage where we're not making a wage out of gill net fishing because when we pull the nets out all that's left are the heads, the seals have the rest eaten," said Dingle fisherman Michael Hennessy, skipper of Realt na Mara, who has been fishing for over 30 years.

"They're even getting into the lobster pots and eating the bait. What we're making out of the gill nets is not covering the diesel, and a seal has no mortgage to pay."

Mr Hennessy and countless fishermen like him all along the western seaboard are calling for a cull. They say promises of compensation are no good to them.

"There isn't money for hospitals so there isn't a hope in hell they'll give us money for what the seals are doing. We were promised compensation for tuna eight years ago. We gave that up for dolphins and we're still waiting.

"We want a seal cull; that's the only way to keep us in business. We don't want to see them wiped out but we do want to be able to work. They'll have to do something shortly. It's gone too serious. Every one of the coves and inlets around the Blaskets are full of them and they don't have any natural predator in the waters we're dealing with," Mr Hennessy added.

Mr Price acknowledged the fishermen were showing "remarkable restraint in not breaking the law".

"Obviously, we won't advocate a cull but we have to acknowledge there is a massive problem here," he said. "The fishermen have been remarkably open and restrained and we're going to do everything we can to highlight the problem, except cull the seals."

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Over 60 seals were shot and bludgeoned to death on the Blasket Islands in 2004, in a move which was condemned by the ISS. The fishermen say the number killed that time was "peanuts" compared to what they're looking for.

The Department of the Environment says there are no plans for culling the grey seal. Based on 2005 figures, the department estimates there are between 5,500 and 7,000 seals off the Irish coast.

However, the ISS points out there are more African elephants in the world than grey seals.

"The Blasket Islands are one of the most iconic seal colonies. It's a sight plenty of people would pay to see and there is definitely an opportunity here with eco-tourism.

"They could be a very valuable asset to this town in the same way as Fungi (the Dingle Dolphin) has been," Mr Price added.

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