MSPs demand tougher regulation for fish farming

SEPA fish farm salmon
Fish Farm Image © SEPA

Scotland’s fish farming industry must bow to tougher environmental regulation if wants to expand, a committee of MSPs has concluded.

A new report from the Scottish Parliament’s rural economy committee has criticised the industry for “extremely high mortality rates”, for failing to deal with sea lice infestations and for the environmental damage caused by pesticides.

MSPs called for “urgent action” to improve regulation and to address fish health and environmental problems, making 65 recommendations for change. The current regulatory regime was “confusing and poorly coordinated”, they concluded.

Campaigners have lauded the long-awaited report as a “vindication” of their criticisms, while the industry has highlighted the “opportunities” it offers for “well-regulated, sustainable growth”. The Scottish Government said many of the issues raised were “already being addressed”.

Fish farm companies, backed by the Scottish Government, want to double their business from £1.8 billion in 2016 to £3.6 billion by 2030. The industry earns £600 million a year as Scotland’s biggest food export.

But in recent years salmon farmers have been hit by a raft of problems with disease and lice, admitting that they threw away 10 million fish in 2016. They have been strongly criticised by the parliament’s environment committee and in November the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) warned that pesticides used to kill lice were harming marine wildlife.

In June 2018 The Ferret published hundreds of official photos showing damaged and diseased salmon from fish farms. In September we revealed underwater video footage of lice-infested salmon in a cage off the island of Lewis, prompting government investigations.

Environmental Impact

The rural economy committee’s convener, Tory MSP Edward Mountain, warned that the industry had to change. “It is essential that the serious challenges it faces such as the control of sea lice, lowering fish mortality rates and reducing the sector’s impact on the environment are addressed as a priority,” he said.

“If the reputation of Scottish salmon as a premium product is to be maintained, Scotland’s salmon farmers must demonstrate responsible and sustainable production methods. Importantly, the committee is strongly of the view that the status quo in terms of regulation and enforcement is not acceptable, and that we need to raise the bar in Scotland by setting enhanced and more effective standards.”

There was still no effective way of dealing with sea lice, he argued. “The committee considers that the sea lice compliance policy must be robust and enforceable with appropriate penalties,” he added.

“The committee also deems the current level of fish mortalities to be too high in general across the sector and is concerned about extremely high mortality rates at particular sites. It is of the view that no expansion should be permitted at sites which report high or significantly increased levels of mortalities, until these are addressed to the satisfaction of regulators.”

A Moratorium?

A majority of the committee, however, rejected calls for a moratorium on industry expansion “as there was insufficient evidence to support this”. Two members of the committee dissented from that view: the Green MSP, John Finnie, and the Labour MSP, Colin Smyth.

The committee said it was “essential that Sepa introduces a significantly enhanced regulatory and monitoring regime under which it will robustly and effectively enforce compliance with environmental standards.” There had to be a move away from the “self-assessment culture that appears to be prevalent at present”, it concluded.

The report recommended that “a precautionary approach” must be taken on the potential impact of sea lice infestation from salmon farms on wild salmon. “There should be an immediate and proactive shift towards locating new farms in more suitable areas away from wild salmon migratory routes,” it said.

“A more strategic approach should be taken to identify those areas across Scotland that are either suitable or unsuitable for siting of salmon farms. There should be immediate dialogue with the industry to identify scope for moving existing poorly sited farms.”

Read more at The Ferret: MSPs demand tougher regulation for fish farming, published 27/11/18.

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