No seals are harvested commercially in the UK, in accordance with the Conservation of Seals Act 1970. However, a person can legally kill a seal "to prevent it from causing damage to a fishing net or fishing tackle in his possession or in the possession of a person at whose request he killed or attempted to kill the seal, or to any fish for the time being in such fishing net, provided that at the time the seal was in the vicinity of such net or tackle causing damage to fishing nets and fish farms ..."
Such killings do not need to be reported, and it is thus unknown how many seals are actually killed. While official statistics indicate just 50 or so a year, conservation groups suggest the numbers may be as high as several thousand a year.
The debate over the need to cull grey seals has been a long-running one, particularly in Scotland. The last such cull was carried out in 1978. Support comes from fishermen, who are already suffering from reduced quotas and blame the seals for hindering the recovery of stocks, and from fish-farm and salmon-angling interests.
In the "close season", fishermen are only allowed to shoot seals caught damaging their gear, or in the vicinity thereof. Outside the "close season", there is no regulation, and seals of any age or sex can be killed.
According to a study carried out in 2006 for the Scottish Executive and Scottish Natural Heritage, the grey seal population off the west coast of Scotland has increased since 1985. The study also found a change in the animals' diet. They are now eating fewer sand eels, the same amount of cod but three times more haddock and herring.