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Scottish salmon farmers must raise the bar say MSPs

From left, Gael Force MD Stewart Graham, Grieg Seafood Shetland chief Grant Cumming, Scottish Salmon Company MD Craig Anderson, Marine Harvest Scotland boss Ben Hadfield and former SSPO chief Scott Landsburgh give evidence to the REC committee inquiry.
From left, Gael Force MD Stewart Graham, Grieg Seafood Shetland chief Grant Cumming, Scottish Salmon Company MD Craig Anderson, Marine Harvest Scotland boss Ben Hadfield and former SSPO chief Scott Landsburgh give evidence to the REC committee inquiry.

MSPs who carried out an inquiry into the future of Scottish salmon farming have called for urgent action to improve and enhance the regulation of the industry but have rejected calls for a moratorium on expansion.

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In a long-awaited report published today, the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) committee said more effective regulatory standards were needed to ensure that fish health issues are properly managed.

REC committee convener Edward Mountain said that if the industry was to grow it had to prioritise challenges such as the control of sea lice, lowering fish mortality rates and reducing its impact on the environment.

“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,” said Mountain.

Mandatory reporting

The changes recommended in the report include introducing mandatory and timely reporting of sea lice numbers, fish mortality levels and medicine use.

The MSPs want the figures to be available to regulators and the public a week in arrears, as is the case in Norway. Currently lice figures from Scottish farms are voluntary and are released by the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) three months after being counted.

MSPs are also recommending that regulators should be given the power to reduce or suspend production at farms with high mortality levels until problems are resolved.

They also say it is essential that waste collection and removal from salmon farms is addressed as a matter of urgency.

Migration routes

Although they acknowledge there is no empirical evidence that lice from fish farms harm wild salmon, the MSPs also say there should be an immediate and proactive shift towards locating new farms away from wild salmon migration routes.

Examining the scope for siting salmon farms in suitable offshore locations should be treated as a high priority.

SSPO chief executive Julie Hesketh-Laird welcomed the report and said the REC committee has recognised the opportunities for well-regulated, sustainable growth in order that the industry can continue to offer economic and social value to Scotland.

Critical phase

“We agree with the committee that there is no evidence that salmon farming should not continue to grow sustainably,” added 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.

At-a-glance guide to the report’s recommendations

Growth

  • Urgent and meaningful action needed to address regulatory deficiencies as well as fish health and environmental issues before the industry can expand
  • Insufficient evidence for a moratorium on new salmon farm development and expansion of existing sites
  • Impact of expansion plans on other marine sectors needs to be recognised and reduced

Mortalities

  • Robust intervention by regulators for serious incidents
  • Should include limiting or closing down production
  • Mandatory and timely reporting of mortality levels including underlying causes, and of early harvesting because of disease

Sea lice

  • Challenging threshold comparable with highest international standards
  • Mandatory compliance with sea lice limits which can be enforced with penalties
  • Mandatory reporting of lice data to regulators produced weekly in arrears, as in Norway
  • Costs borne by the industry

Cleaner fish

  • Regulation of cleaner fish fishing to preserve wild stocks

Medicines

  • Data on medicine use made publicly available on the same platform used for sea lice and mortality data

Wild fish interactions

  • Strict penalties for fish escapes, as in Norway
  • Clarity from Scottish Government over which regulator will assume responsibility for impact of salmon farming on wild stocks

Salmon farm locations

  • An immediate and proactive shift to site new farms away from wild salmon migratory routes
  • Scottish Government should provide strategic guidance specifying those areas that are suitable or unsuitable for salmon farms
  • Immediate dialogue with the industry to identify scope for moving existing poorly sited farms, led by Marine Scotland and encouraged with appropriate incentives for operators such as increased capacity at replacement sites

Research on impact of industry

  • A requirement for the industry to contribute finance, expertise and other relevant resources to independent research

Regulation

  • Marine Scotland should be tasked with the significant improvement in co-ordination and interaction of regulators
  • A comprehensively updated package of regulation should be developed by Marine Scotland and other regulatory bodies
  • SEPA must introduce a significantly enhanced regulatory and monitoring regime under which it will robustly and effectively enforce compliance with environmental standards

Accreditation

  • Align regulations with accreditations where appropriate
  • Clarify and simplify accreditation for consumers

Waste

  • Essential that waste collection and removal is given a high priority by the industry, the Scottish Government and relevant agencies. It needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency
Julie Hesketh-Laird: Welcomes involvement in regulatory discussion.
Julie Hesketh-Laird: Welcomes involvement in regulatory discussion.

Leading participants

“We are leading participants in the Scottish Government’s 10-year Farmed Fish Health Framework which promotes collaboration between industry, regulators and scientists to underpin long-term improvements in fish health and welfare.

“We intend to continue that work and investment and we welcome involvement in any future regulatory discussion to help us do that and ensure that future changes in farming regulations are robust, inspire confidence in all stakeholders and are practical and workable.

“On the siting of farms, we welcome the committee’s recommendation 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.”

Government response

Under Scottish Government protocol, it is expected to respond to relevant recommendations contained in the REC committee report within two months of its publication.

The form of the response is not specified, but in practice most responses concentrate on the main recommendations of the report which are directed at the Scottish Government.

Committees cannot require the Scottish Government to take action on or accept their recommendations, but there is an expectation that due weight will be given to the conclusions and recommendations agreed.

Read the full report here.

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