THERE will be no plain sailing for Keith the seal after the Angling Trust said it remained committed to returning the marine mammal to the sea.
At the end of last year Keith, a female seal, managed to evade capture thanks to the extensive flooding.
The trust had successfully applied for a special licence from Natural England authorising them to remove him during the close season, when Keith fell under the protection of regulations forbidding her being captured during the mating season.
The normal protective period ended on December 31 and the trust will not need another licence to capture Keith until Monday, September 1.
Keith has been at Northwick Marina, but her days inhabiting the river Severn may be numbered after the organisation said it would continue to work with the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) to catch her.
And with flood waters receding, Keith will have fewer hiding places.
The trust and the divers association say she must be returned to the sea to ensure she will come to no harm and to protect vulnerable and fragile freshwater fish stocks, including endangered shad and eel and threatened Atlantic salmon.
Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Angling Trust, said: “The situation has not been helped by members of the public feeding the seal as if it was a pet rather than a wild mammal with a natural fear of humans.
“We are particularly concerned that the seal has been seen predating on highly protected fish species in the river Teme – a site of special scientific interest noted for its eel, salmon, shad, lamprey and barbel populations.
“These fish have specific protection under the law for very good reason.
“The right thing to do, therefore, for the river, the fish and the seal is for all lovers of wildlife to work together and ensure this animal is safely rescued – not harmed, but relocated to its natural habitat .
“The fragile Severn freshwater system will then be preserved for future generations."
However, the latest plans will not please those who believe the seal should be left to swim freely and have signed a petition demanding the trust abandons its plans.
Lisa Ventura, who runs the Save Keith Facebook page, said: “The petition to date has received 2,780 signatures since it went live on December 29, which shows just how much support there is for Keith to be left alone in the river Severn, where she seems happy.
“She has been in the river for over a year now, is causing no harm and it is unlikely that she is affecting fish stocks as much as the Angling Trust claims.
“I can’t see how one seal could affect the number of fish in the Severn, especially as she has been spotted as far up as Bewdley and as far down as Gloucester, a view that has been expressed by many on Keith’s Facebook pages – including some anglers.”
However, Alan Knight, chairman of the BDMLR, said it had serious concerns for Keith’s safety.
“The Angling Trust and local angling clubs have been committed from the start to finding a solution which avoided any harm coming to the seal but minimised damage to fish and birdlife.
“Although in an ideal world we would like to leave Keith where she is, we do have serious concerns for the seal’s safety.
“We therefore remain committed to working with the Angling Trust to gently and safely remove Keith from harm’s way and return her to the sea, which is after all her natural home.”