In October 1981, the carcases of 140 butchered seals were discovered on the Inishkea Islands, off the Belmullet peninsula. The slaughter horrified the public and animal welfare groups and the brutal manner in which the animals met their doom had ensured that the incident would gather negative media attention for the Erris area. But who carried out the massacre and why? The finger of blame immediately pointed to local fishermen.
Tim Quinn, manager of the Belmullet Co-Op, stated that government inactivity in controlling the seal population had resulted in the fishermen’s anger boiling over. Quinn worked closely with the fishermen as his Co-Op bought salmon from them and he regularly heard their grievances over the damage caused by seals to salmon trapped in their drift nets. The fishermen had claimed that the seal population was on the rise and this meant drastically reduced fish takes by their boats. Three hundred boatmen depended on the six week salmon fishing season, and at £12 a fish, any loss would affect their ability to supplement their annual incomes. Quinn had warned the Minister for Fisheries that seal numbers would have to be culled, but no cull took place.
In that context, Quinn felt it was hard to blame the fishermen for the action they had taken but he added that he was appalled by the way the seals had been killed. The seals had been blasted at close range with shotguns. Some did not die instantly but were left in agony by the attackers, of whom police believed there were at least twelve men. The killers had strung fishing nets around the islands in advance of the slaughter to prevent panic stricken animals from escaping. A later planned airlift of the injured seals had to be abandoned as the attackers had returned to the scene and dragged away the carcases and the living in an attempt to cover up the massacre. Members of the public had helped police greatly in trying to find the killers and the Irish Wildlife Federation understood the names of the guilty were known to authorities. The problem was lack of evidence to support prosecutions.
The killings, the police investigation and the mystery of the perpetrators, still at large, brought national and international attention on the area. Wildlife film maker, Éamon de Buitléar said that on one island alone, 98 per cent of the pup population had been wiped out. He felt it was a needless crime as the seal population would only be topped up again by animals coming to the west coast from Scotland. The 1981 killings had been the second illegal slaughter in two years. No action had been taken after the first and it was feared that it would happen a third time if action was not taken again. In December, after much bad press, the Belmullet Co-Op invited interested parties, including fishermen and the Minister for Fisheries, to Belmullet in a bid to avoid a recurrence of the seal slaughter. The Department of Fisheries agreed to carry out a count of the seal population and to bring down the numbers, if necessary.
The following October, Mayo TDs were cautious of the Department of Fisheries’ plans, should it decide to cull seal numbers. Speaking in the Dáil, West Mayo TD, Enda Kenny, asked the Minister responsible to detail his plans to prune the population so that conservation groups would have confidence in the measure. One such group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, had protested any culling of the seal colony. The group claimed salmon declines were due to over fishing, illegal drifting and poaching. The Sea Shepherds intensified their protest closer to a potential cull, the first since 1976, and they set up a camp on Inishkea Island. Some in the media praised the Sea Shepherds for risking their lives on the storm strewn island to protect the seals from a further ‘diabolical crime of nature’. Impatient Erris fishermen met and gave an ultimatum to the Department, carry out the cull, or else. The then Minister for Fisheries, Brendan Daly, ultimately turned down the fishermen’s request for a cull following a count of the seal population.