SEPA plans tighter controls but bigger farms

SCOTTISH fish farms will be able to expand, with larger farms in ‘sustainable locations’, but will be subject to tighter environmental controls, under proposals for a revised regulatory regime published today by SEPA.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s 16-month investigation into salmon farms concludes that medicines, particularly emamectin benzoate used in the control of sea lice, significantly impacts local marine environments.

The agency, which said it was looking to improve the environmental performance of fish farming, calls for a new approach to such drugs, subject to a further review by the UK Technical Advisory Group.

It also proposes tighter standards for the organic waste deposited by fish farms, and the introduction of more accurate modelling, which operators will be required to invest in.

The creation of a new enforcement unit will strengthen the checking and verifying of monitoring that fish farm operators must undertake.

SEPA’s Finfish Aquaculture Sector Plan and revised regulatory regime also recommends stronger monitoring of the impact of fish farms in surrounding areas.

The proposals have been put together as salmon farming comes under ever greater scrutiny. Two Scottish parliamentary inquiries have been conducted this year, and the industry is still awaiting the results of the last of these, by the Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) committee.

It is believed the REC committee wanted to see the SEPA findings before concluding its own report, which is now expected in mid November.

SEPA said the combination of the new standard, new modelling and enhanced monitoring – with a system called EXPAND – will allow the siting of farms in ‘the most appropriate areas where the environment can assimilate wastes’, and allow a better match between biomass and the capacity available in the environment.

Scotland’s salmon farmers have ambitions to double growth in the sector and the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) welcomed SEPA’s move away from current farm limitations.

‘This is a rigorous report setting out modern regulation and enabling the industry to grow sustainably over the long term,’ said SSPO chief executive Julie Hesketh-Laird.

‘It is the culmination of years of collaborative work between the Scottish salmon farmers and SEPA to develop a new framework for the gradual and careful expansion of the Scottish salmon sector.

‘We share SEPA’s vision of an innovative, sustainable salmon industry underpinned by clear and accurate regulation.

‘This report will remove many of the barriers preventing the development of more modern facilities further from the shore and we look forward to SEPA’s support as the industry makes this change.’

The SSPO also welcomed the move to refer SEPA’s findings on emamectin benzoate to the UK Technical Advisory Group before making recommendations on new environmental standards.

‘The discovery of residues is important information but it should be remembered that salmon farmers were operating to SEPA guidelines throughout the past five years,’ said Hesketh-Laird.

‘The management of sea lice on farms has moved on considerably from reliance on veterinary medicines.

‘However, salmon farmers need the reassurance that veterinary medicines are available should the need arise and we will be keen to study the recommendations from the UK Technical Advisory Group.’

The SSPO said the new model will be used to understand the potential environmental footprint of farms.

‘The model will move away from current limitations and help regulate farm activity in a more modern and accurate way.

‘The new regulatory framework supports the development of larger farms and may mean that some farms are best moved to more appropriate locations.’

SEPA said that, overall, the proposals will ‘encourage operators to site and operate their fish farms in environmentally less sensitive waters and use improved practices and technologies to reduce environmental impact’.

‘In practice, we anticipate this will lead to fewer fish farms in shallower, slow-flowing waters and more fish farms in deeper and faster-flowing waters.

‘We also anticipate it will encourage the adoption of new technologies, such as partial and full containment to capture organic waste and any remaining medical residues.

‘SEPA has seen some industry operators successfully developing new approaches such as non-chemical ways of managing fish health. Our new regime will support these encouraging developments.

‘As one of a number of organisations regulating finfish aquaculture, SEPA believes its proposals have the potential to significantly improve in the environmental performance of the industry.’

Terry A’Hearn, chief executive of SEPA, said over the last 16 months the agency had done ‘more science, more analysis and more listening than ever before’.

‘Whilst a high quality environment and abundant freshwater resources are vital to Scotland’s aquaculture sector, it’s an industry that attracts polarised positions, from those who cite its economic contribution to those who stridently oppose its existence.’

He said SEPA agreed with the findings in March of the Holyrood ECCLR (Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform) committee that ‘the status quo is not an option’.

There will now be a seven-week public consultation, with SEPA hosting a series of nine events across Scotland during November and December.

Individuals, interest groups, NGOs, communities, companies and other stakeholders can find out more, talk directly with specialist teams and provide direct feedback to the agency.

Picture: SEPA chief executive Terry A’Hearn

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