Despite the impression of doom and gloom concerning the fate of the world's wildlife that one can gather from the media, there are in fact many success stories from recent decades where populations of various species have stabilized or recovered. However, learning to live with these conservation success stories is often harder than bringing about the initial recovery. European large carnivores are a case in point, especially the wolf (Canis lupus). Following the changes in public opinion and policy that began appearing in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, wolf populations have begun to recolonize many parts of Europe, such as Scandinavia, the French and Italian Alps, and the German lowlands, from which they had been absent for many decades. The response has been an explosion of conflict, both of a material and economic nature (caused mainly by depredation on livestock; Kaczensky, 1999) and of a social and political nature (focusing mainly on the symbolic aspects of this recovery; Skogen, Mauz & Krange, 2006; Dickman, 2010). The case of wolves also illustrates the diversity of conflicts that can emerge, that go far beyond the simple economic conflicts and into areas where perceptions are just as important as reality.

Seals are a clear marine parallel to terrestrial wolves in both their conservation history and the range of conflicts that their conservation has produced, with salmon taking the place of sheep as the main victims, and farmers and hunters being replaced by fishermen of various types as the main protagonists. Addressing such conflicts, be they in Scottish estuaries, European mountains or Scandinavian forests, requires a three-step process. Firstly, there is a need to recognize the genuine existence of a conflict and the equal legitimacy of the diverse dimensions along which a conflict can be expressed. Secondly, there is a need to understand the functional mechanisms behind the conflict, including both the ecological and the sociological/political aspects. Only when these two steps have been completed is it possible to move onto the third step of identifying potential conflict reduction, mitigation or compensation measures.

The paper by Graham et al. (2011) is a welcome contribution to the second step of this heuristic framework and is set in the context of the conflict between seals and salmon fishermen. Killing carnivores and seals is controversial with the public and may endanger their conservation status (Treves, 2009). Graham et al. (2011) seek to explore the evidence for the existence of problem individuals (sensu Linnell et al., 1999) among the seal population, which are responsible for a disproportional impact on salmon. The idea is that a more selective removal (i.e. killing) of these individuals, if they exist, would create less of a conflict with the public's sensibilities and with seal conservation than a more widespread use of lethal control across the whole seal population. This testing of an underlying management assumption is a crucial step toward a robust and knowledge-based management system. In their paper, Graham et al. (2011) draw on multiple lines of evidence to indicate that there may well be some individuals that disproportionally make use of rivers and that seals in rivers feed more on salmon and trout than other seals. Taken in isolation, none of their data would be strong enough to draw conclusions. Their sample size for investigating seal diet is particularly small. However, when taken together, the multiple lines of evidence certainly present a strong case for the existence of problem, or ‘rogue’ seals, although there is clearly a need for more research on the topic. Comparative telemetry data from rogue and non-rogue seals would have been particularly interesting as it has often been used in comparative studies of terrestrial carnivores (e.g. Odden et al., 2002), as would the use of well-designed adaptive management experiments where the impact of seal removal was monitored.

The important question is how this new information is used in the context of seal management. This latest paper goes a long way to testing the assumption of the existence of rogue seals, which is part of the model presented earlier by Butler et al. (2006). However, there is still a little understanding of exactly how much time each rogue seal spends in the rivers, which will be crucial to understanding the potential impact on salmon runs of removing these individuals.

This opens up for a fascinating and complex debate about the place of lethal control in conflict management of predatory mammals in general (Treves, 2009). On the one hand, lethal control is often used in the belief that removing certain individuals or a proportion of the population will actually achieve measurable changes (such as reduction in depredation on livestock or an increase in harvestable shared prey). On the other hand, lethal control is often used to reduce the social and political conflicts under the belief that allowing stakeholders to kill a few predators will lower the temperature of the conflict and increase levels of tolerance (Linnell et al., 2010). There is some evidence for both effects (e.g. Herfindal et al., 2005; Ericsson et al.,2004), although there is likely to be a very high degree of context dependence. There are also likely to be many legal issues, especially in EU countries, where killing protected species to reduce conflict is legally controversial under the Habitats Directive and there is no formal recognition of the validity of social conflicts as opposed to economic conflicts as an argument to make a derogation from protection (e.g. Hiedanpää & Bromley, 2011). The discussion about the potential threats posed to conservation by overprotection (through its impact on tolerance) is long overdue.

Clearly, natural science can help inform decisions about managing the more tangible elements of conflict; however, there is a clear need for the social sciences to help shed light on the less tangible and perception-based elements of conflict (Dickman, 2010). It is therefore very positive that the paper by Graham et al. (2011) is complimented by a recent parallel paper (Butler et al., 2011), which explores the perceptions of stakeholders to seals and seal management issues. The emerging body of work from this team should provide decision makers in the Moray Firth with a solid platform of knowledge on which to base management decisions. Unfortunately, there are so many conflict dimensions (predator control, economic interests, deeply held values, traditions, species of conservation concern that feed on other species of conservation concern, etc.) and so many diverse stakeholders in this conflict that it is unlikely that any management regime will be able to ‘solve’ the conflicts. To some extent, conservation conflicts are unavoidable and our ambition should be to ensure that decisions are well informed and made through transparent and participatory processes with acceptable compromise as much a goal as consensus.


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  2. References
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  • Butler, J.R.A., Middlemas, S.J., Graham, I.M. & Harris, R.N. (2011). Perceptions and costs of seal impacts on Atlantic salmon fisheries in the Moray Firth, Scotland: implications for the adaptive co-management of seal-fishery conflict. Mar. Pol. 35, 317323.
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