THE lead planning officer at Highland Council has called for the long standing moratorium on fish farms on Scotland’s east and north coasts to be reviewed by the Scottish government.
Mark Harvey, giving evidence to the Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) committee at Holyrood yesterday, said it was a ‘strange situation’ that Scotland had three coasts and yet all the focus in aquaculture was in the west.
There were very few moratoriums for planners and a basic review should be carried out to revisit the ban, which was introduced in the late nineties, he told MSPs.
The REC committee, which is investigating the current state of the salmon farming industry and identifying opportunities for its future development, turned the spotlight on regulatory bodies in the third of its evidence sessions.
Also appearing were Anne Anderson of Sepa (Scottish Environment Protection Agency), Alex Adrian of Crown Estate Scotland, and Cathy Tilbrook of SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage).
Tilbrook, replying to a question from John Mason, the SNP MSP for Glasgow Shettleston, about plans to double production, agreed with Harvey that there was ‘no reason’ not to look at the moratorium on Scotland’s north and east coasts again, so long as there were safeguards in place.
But she said SNH was concerned about the sector’s expansion plans. With innovation to overcome some issues – such as sea lice and containment -there might be much more scope for growth, she said, acknowledging that the industry was doing a lot on innovation.
‘But at the moment it’s difficult to look at growth targets without knowing the environmental impacts.’
Alex Adrian wondered if growth would be ‘doubling with more of the same or by different means’, and suggested that managing the sector required ‘an agility to move with changing circumstances’.
A fundamental part of a management plan is review, he said, giving farmers flexibility to adapt and undertake changes to remain sustainable.
Harvey, who revealed that his council had approved proposals for two salmon farms off Skye the previous day, said farms brought social and economic benefits.
‘Yesterday we looked at landscape, wild fish interactions… we must weigh up all the considerations.’
But salmon farming brings unique employment opportunities to areas not otherwise supporting employment growth.
However, he was concerned about a lack of strategic planning: ‘The industry has set a challenge to themselves but nobody knows the capacity of Scottish waters to absorb that level off activity.’
He was struck by Norway’s ‘traffic light’ system where red is not just stop but draw back – ‘that’s very relevant to Scottish experience’.
There were parts of the west coast where there is too great a loading; these should perhaps be red areas and ‘we need to move them to areas we might categorise as green’.
Asked to identify where such over concentrations were, he said there were a large number of farms south of Skye, which was ‘perhaps worth looking at further to see what capacity it has in environmental terms’.
But there were also areas that haven’t had lots of applications and it was more important to identify the green areas where development could take place.
Harvey said the sector is ‘about 30 years too late’ in such strategic planning and should have these answers by now – ‘we have an awful lot of catching up’.
However, he didn’t agree with Lib Dem MSP for North East Scotland Mike Rumbles’ idea of an overarching regulatory body to improve the planning process.
‘I’d say we do have the overarching framework – the planning system – but we don’t use it very well. If you create one huge regulator it might not work.’
He said fish farm applications are accompanied by environmental statements and went through much higher levels of control than most planning applications – ‘it’s not that it’s not regulated’.
Where the planning system is weak, though, is in the lack of information about environmental interactions.
In the approved Skye application, there were provisos to monitor the effect of the farms on wild fish and mussel stocks in the area.
Harvey described this approach as positive but piecemeal: ‘We are addressing the [environmental] issue but not doing so terribly well.’
He did agree with Rumbles that there should be an overarching approach to fish farm developments across the Highlands rather than looking at applications on an individual basis.
But he insisted the existing planning system was appropriate, although local authorities maybe needed to provide greater regulatory clarity. He said it was ‘late in the day’ and the industry shouldn’t get into a five-year discussion period where nothing is done.
Alex Adrian said the regulatory framework didn’t recognise the circumstances fish farms operate in, and while regulators recognised the issues, they didn’t have the right tools to address them.
‘We have the right pieces but they haven’t been put together in the right way.’
The marine environment is dynamic and management should be more adaptive, with better collaboration between the industry, regulators and government.
The SNH, however, believed there had been progress in recent years, with the move to focus on pre-application discussion leading to a decrease in applications meeting problems.
Identifying at a very early stage what the constraints might be – ‘so we can steer developers away from sites where there may be the most problems’ – was something the SNH embraced, said Tilbrook.
Asked by Edward Mountain, the REC convenor, whether the current regulatory framework protected or enhanced the environment, Tilbrook said: ‘I couldn’t say it has enhanced. I think to most extents it hasn’t degraded it because we have safeguards in place.’
Anne Anderson of Sepa said there were elements of the regulatory framework that worked well, but there was always room for improvement, and Sepa was conducting a review, due to be published shortly.
Next Wednesday (April 25), the REC committee will hear evidence from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scotland Food and Drink and the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre.
Then on May 2, it’s the turn of salmon farmers including Marine Harvest and Grieg Seafood Shetland, along with the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation and the Scottish Seafood Association.
And Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing will appear at the last session on May 9.
Picture: Highland Council planner Mark Harvey