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Siri Elise Dybdal

The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) recently announced the expulsion of one of its members over a serious contravention of the Code of Good Practice for Scottish Finfish Aquaculture (CoGP).

The feud was a result of Hjaltland Seafarms Ltd’s (a part of Grieg Seafood Hjaltland (UK) Ltd) decision to import smolts without a period of quarantine. According to SSPO’s Code of Good Practice for fish farming, the importation of smolt from a country with lower health status without undertaking a quarantine period is strictly prohibited.

The decision to expel the fish farm, which production is located in Shetland and Skye, was taken at a special meeting of the SSPO board on 14th April 2014.

This is the first time SSPO expels a member in such circumstances. However, Grieg Seafood argues that the SSPO Code of Practise is not in line with the current EU legislation.

Legal In order to protect and maintain Scotland’s high fish health status and its reputation for world leading standards of good practice, SSPO and its members have since 2006 worked in accordance with a policy that requires the quarantining and testing of smolts imported from all areas and zones of countries of lower health status for a period of no less than three months. This policy is set out within the Code of Good Practice for Scottish Finfish Aquaculture. Hjaltland’s actions in importing live salmon smolts from an approved zone within Norway without quarantine are, therefore, in direct contravention of industry policy to which they previously subscribed.

However, under the European legislation it is legal to import salmon smolts from another country that has equivalent fish health status; and also from “approved zones and compartments” within countries that have lower fish health status. So while it is legal to import smolts under the European legislation, the Code of Good Practice stipulates that a period of quarantine is also required to protect biosecurity.

In a comment from Grieg Seafood, the company confirmed that the company had transferred smolts from Norway over to Shetland and argued that this is a legal move:

“This import is carried out entirely in accordance with existing veterinary legislation in Scotland, the EU and Norway. The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, SSPO, has internal regulations that require fish to be kept in quarantine in Scotland for three months. This is not in line with statutory requirements and there is no such capacity that makes this possible. “The SSPO regulations therefore in reality prevent the export of smolts from Norway to Scotland and is therefore not in line with the EU legislation, which both Scotland and Norway have implemented,” the firm said

Concerned “Norway as a country has a lower health status than the UK, but there are a number of areas in Norway which are thought to be geographical distinct from the rest of the country. Here fish have been tested over years for listed diseases,” explains Dr. John Webster, technical director of SSPO.

He says the EU rules have been set to protect bio-security, but also to improve trade. “It is a perfectly legal move to import from these areas, but in Scotland we are concerned on number of accounts,” he says.

This concern led the SSPO to require that its’ members would carry out a quarantine of three months when importing live fish, to monitor fish health and check for diseases that may have gone undetected in order to have best biosecurity practice, safeguard Scotland’s existing high fish health status and maintain the Scottish industry’s world leading standards . Dr Webster says the rest of the industry is unanimous in its concern over this move and there is widespread commitment to quarantine and high biosecurity measures, as required in the Code of Good Practice.

“Our Norwegian owned member companies completely agree with SSPO’s decision. The fact of the matter is that that Hjaltland has been a member of the Scottish Salmon Producer’s Organisation for many years, and they never said they disapproved until they made this decision,” he reveals, and adds the company have previously made no comments on this rule or other rules within the SSPO Code of Good Practise.

He says it was discussed with the company and it is very disappointing that there was no change in their decision. Since the SSPO requires full participation in the independently audited Code, the board made the decision to expel the Shetland based producer.

According to Dr. Webster, Hjaltland’s actions have opened the industry up for scrutiny and given the critics an excuse to attack. “This is not helpful,” he says.

However, he hit back at claims that the decision was part of an anti trade measures: “The Norwegian companies are agreeing, so the anti trade argument doesn’t stack up,” Dr Webster claims.

As for making the quarantine a legal requirement, the SSPO has asked for an opinion on the matter, but does not know where the Government stands and points and points out that they may not want to be seen as anti-competitive.

Will be self-sufficient The reason for the smolt import was according to Grieg that they failed to obtain the required number of smolts as well as smolt of sufficient quality in Scotland. However, it highlighted that the company is planning on being self sufficient with smolt for the Shetland operation in due course.

“It has been necessary for Grieg Seafood to buy more external smolt due to the delay in the completion of our new state-of-the-art hatchery in Shetland. Grieg Seafood will commence production at the new hatchery in Shetland in the summer of 2014. This will, when it is in full operation, make us completely self-sufficient with smolt in Shetland and therefore we will avoid transfers of smolts over long distances from both Norway and mainland Scotland. “Grieg Seafood has taken extensive and extraordinary measures with regards to the transfer of smolts in order to prevent and minimize any form of increased biological risk associated with this transport. Implemented measures and export is however approved by the Norwegian Food Safety Authority, which is responsible for approving such export in accordance with the existing regulations in the EU, Scotland and Norway,” the firm said.

Unnecessary quarantine In Scottish media, Hjaltland Seafarms has commented that the company had taken the best option open by importing the Norwegian smolts without the “unnecessary” quarantine and also pointed out that it was approved by the Scottish and Norwegian authorities and were sourced from a disease free area. Sigurd Pettersen, managing director of Hjaltland Seafood, told local newspaper Shetland News, Pettersen said that the code of practice undermined free trade.”We think that specific clause is contravening Scottish law, Norwegian law and EU legislation. The main thing is that we have done nothing illegal,” he said.

According to the local news sources, the background for the situation was that Hjaltland had got into a difficult position by the loss of 2.5 million smolts to infectious pancreatic necrosis at its Millbrook hatchery in Shetland. Attempts to source replacements from mainland Scotland had not succeeded as the fish were “clearly inferior” to the Norwegian smolts and had come from areas with disease problems, Pettersen commented.

The 1.7 million Norwegian smolts were put to sea at various Hjaltland sites off Scalloway. These would eventually make up to 8,500 tonnes of live fish – 45 per cent of Hjaltland’s yearly Shetland production.

Biological turnaround Managing director Sigurd Pettersen took over temporarily as Grieg Seafood’s Shetland director after Michael Stark left in August last year after heading the Scottish operation for 14 years. The news came at the same time as another tough quarter had been unveiled. The company said that over time the results from Grieg Seafood Hjaltland had been too weak, due to an overall weak biological performance, the company stated then. However, in the Q4 report for 2013, Grieg reported historically high prices and positive turnaround in Shetland. “The turnaround in Shetland has improved the biological situation, reduced production costs and improved the results,” the firm stated. Hjaltland is currently developing the new hatchery at Millbrook from where it will supply fish to its own Shetland operations and also sell them down south. Pettersen told local press that the company’s new hatchery would be completed by mid October but would be able to take in the first batch of eggs as early as June this year so it will have as many as two million smolts available in spring of 2015. By 2016 production should have increased to five million a year to supply all of the company’s Shetland based farms.

As a result of the expulsion from SSPO, Hjaltland Seafarm’s fish will not be certified to the standards of the Code of Good Practice. This is independently audited and is important in demonstrating responsible fish farming standards.

Dissapointment Scott Landsburgh, chief executive of SSPO, said it had been a huge disappointment to expel the company and added that he was particularly disappointed that the company rejected all offers from other SSPO members to help: “It is with deep disappointment that the Board of SSPO has made the decision to expel a member company. “In expressing their grave concerns about the company’s plans, other members of SSPO went to extraordinary lengths to help Hjaltland source smolts from Scotland. These offers were rejected. I am impressed by the enormous spirit of collaboration and support shown between companies to find a solution to this problem. I am, therefore, all the more disappointed that every overture was rejected and it was agreed that we should take this step.”

SSPO does not believe that Hjaltland’s Seafarms move will open the door for other companies to do the same thing: “While it is legal to import smolts, the rest of the industry is unanimous in its concern over this move and there is widespread commitment to quarantine and high biosecurity measures, as required in the Code of Good Practice.”