URGENT action is needed to improve the regulation of the Scottish salmon farming industry and to address fish health and environmental challenges, the long awaited Scottish parliamentary report into the sector has found.
But the Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) committee, which launched its inquiry into salmon farming in March, steps back from demanding a moratorium on new salmon farm development and expansion of existing sites.
The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) welcomed the findings, noting that the committee recognised the opportunities for sustainable growth.
However, Rural Economy minister Fergus Ewing, an outspoken champion of the industry, said many of the REC recommendations were already being tackled by farmers in collaboration with the government.
In its 148-page report, published today, the committee said if the industry is to expand, there is a need to introduce ‘enhanced and more effective regulatory standards’ to ensure that fish health issues are properly managed and the impact on the environment is kept to a minimum.
If these challenges are effectively addressed, then the industry, with its many economic and social benefits, and the communities it works with can continue to develop, said the report.
The inquiry was sparked by a petition from the angling lobby group Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, which called for a halt to expansion in the industry.
But during lengthy evidence sessions, which lasted for two months and heard from salmon farmers, regulators, academics, anglers, environmental groups and government officials, the economic advantages of the sector were highlighted.
Ewing told the committee in May that aquaculture contributed enormously to the rural economy and supported more than 12,000 jobs.
As to the angling lobby’s claim that sea lice from salmon farms negatively impacted on wild salmon, the committee admitted there was ‘a lack of definitive scientific evidence on this issue’, and said there were ‘likely to be a range of factors that have contributed to the decline in wild salmon stocks over recent decades’.
REC committee convenor Edward Mountain (Con, Highlands and Islands), whose ownership of valuable river fisheries led to accusations of a conflict of interest, said: ‘The salmon farming industry offers significant economic and social value to Scotland, providing jobs and investment in rural areas. There is a desire within the industry to grow.
‘However, if this is to happen, 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. Our report contains 65 recommendations on how this should be taken forward.
‘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.’
On sea lice, the committee recommends that there should be a mandatory approach to the reporting of infestations.
And 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.
Yet, despite calls from anti-farming campaigners for a moratorium on new salmon farm development and expansion of existing sites, the committee decided there was ‘insufficient evidence to support this’.
Fergus Ewing said: ‘While we will carefully consider the committee’s recommendations, a number of sustainability issues identified in its report are already being addressed through the Fish Health Framework working groups and the new wild and farmed salmon interactions working group.
‘Aquaculture must be delivered and developed sustainably, with appropriate regulatory frameworks that minimise and address environmental impacts.
‘But we are also clear that the sector is hugely important to Scotland’s economy, particularly in remote and rural communities, and it is disappointing that the committee has not fully explored nor analysed that economic and social contribution and benefit more fully.’
The SSPO said it welcomed any changes in farming regulations that were ‘robust, inspire confidence in all stakeholders and are practical and workable’.
‘We agree with the committee that there is no evidence that salmon farming should not continue to grow sustainably,’ said SSPO chief executive Julie Hesketh-Laird.
‘The Scottish salmon farming sector is at a critical phase of its development and the committee’s recommendation that regulation be improved to keep pace with potential growth is encouraging.
‘The sector is keen to work with Scottish parliamentary committees, the Scottish government, the regulators and other organisations who have interests, or indeed concerns, about salmon farming.
‘The health of our fish and the environment we depend on are vital for salmon farming and all SSPO members invest significantly in these areas.
‘Our members produce the world’s most sought after farmed salmon and are fully aware that, with that, comes the responsibility to ensure world class fish welfare and environmental standards.
‘To that end, the industry is already voluntarily reporting lice levels and is world leading in publishing survival data on a farm-by-farm basis.’
On the siting of salmon farms, the REC committee recommends that a precautionary approach be taken to address any 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,’ the report states.
‘Until such time as an enhanced regulation and enforcement is in place, the precautionary approach to applications for new sites and expansion of existing sites should be firmly and effectively applied. The Scottish government should provide strong and clear leadership to ensure this occurs.’
However, during his evidence session to the committee on May 9, Ewing said: ‘I contend that we already apply the precautionary principle.’
Hesketh-Laird said the SSPO welcomed the committee’s recommendation on the siting of farms and the recent move by SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) to support the development of larger farms.
‘The sector has long called for the flexibility to allow farming in more appropriate locations, while existing farms performing well should be supported to continue in doing so,’ she said.
‘The Scottish salmon farming industry employs over two thousand people on farms and supports thousands more in its supply chain, often in the most rural and economically vulnerable communities in Scotland.
‘The industry is committed to ensuring that any changes to its operations and regulations will protect the many livelihoods in rural Scotland.’
The REC committee made 11 recommendations addressing sea lice control and it welcomed the ongoing work of the government’s Fish Health Framework, which includes a review of voluntary sea lice compliance policy; the development of sea lice modelling; and an exploration of the potential benefits of site consolidation.
The committee also backed the findings in March of the ECCLR (Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform) committee, calling for more research into the interactions between farmed and wild salmon.
Other recommendations by the REC committee include:
• On mortalities there should be a process in place which allows robust intervention by regulators when serious fish mortality events occur. It considers that this should include appropriate mechanisms to allow for the limiting or closing down of production until causes are addressed.
• On the transportation of dead fish, the committee said it had not received any substantive evidence that points to any particular weakness or failing in the specific regulatory regime which covers such matters, but recommended that a review should be conducted by the Animal and Plant Health Agency.
• On predators, the committee believes physical barriers should be used ahead of deterrents such as Acoustic Deterrent Devices, which potentially have a harmful impact on cetacean species such as whales and dolphins.
• On closed containment, the committee recognises that the technology has challenges, including its physical footprint whether on land or at sea; energy costs; carbon output; stock welfare issues; and the potentially negative impact on perceptions of provenance and quality.
• On regulation, the committee notes that the current consenting and regulatory framework is confusing and poorly coordinated, and recommends that Marine Scotland should be tasked with delivering the necessary improvements and in taking on an overarching coordinating role.
Martin Jaffa, the aquaculture consultant who has written extensively on wild and farmed salmonid interactions, said: ‘The REC committee should never have agreed to an inquiry based on the evidence presented in the petition.’
This stated that ‘fisheries scientists are increasingly clear that sea lice produced on fish farms harm wild salmonids’, but did not offer any definitive proof that salmon farms are responsible for declines in wild fish numbers, said Jaffa.
‘Submissions countering the claims in the petition were seemingly ignored. At most, the committee should have requested more information on the interactions between salmon farms, sea lice and wild fish.
‘However, at the suggestion of the convenor, a full inquiry into the aquaculture industry was launched even though it was completely unjustified.’
The REC report will be debated in Holyrood in due course, with any legislative impact to follow.
Picture: REC committee convenor Edward Mountain