Next year the Scottish Government will introduce legislation that will require all marine fish farms to report a weekly sea lice number to the Fish Health Inspectorate (FHI), one week in arrears. Every report will be published.
Ewing said strengthening the statutory basis of the regime would ensure there was consistency of approach and would deliver confidence in the system.
The Government will also reduce the level at which fish farmers must report a lice issue to the FHI from an average of three adult female lice to two.
The level at which authorities can intervene to demand lice levels are reduced will be lowered from eight to six. The changes will come into effect in the next reporting week.
A further reduction of the intervention threshold from six lice to four will happen, if confirmed by a review of the evidence, 12 months after the implementation of the new statutory reporting regime.
Ewing told MSPs: “The changes being made to the intervention levels are being introduced following just one fish farming cycle in the marine environment.
“So, it must be recognised that these timescales are actually very short in terms of the fish farming production cycle, and we must ensure that farmers are able to adapt and make necessary investments.”
In a further move, the Government will explore how to introduce third party independent checks on fish farm sea lice counts to ensure the accuracy of the information provided.
“The changes I am announcing today will ensure that efforts to control and minimise the prevalence of sea lice will be maintained and indeed exceeded in the future,” said Ewing.
Julie Hesketh-Laird, chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO), said: “The Scottish salmon sector has for some time led on ensuring greater transparency and the speedier publication of data.
“The SSPO has been voluntarily publishing lice data since 2013 and since 2018 reporting has been on a farm by farm basis. We are pleased the Scottish government’s announcements build on this.”
The move to reduce the number of lice required to trigger reporting and enforcement action is something the SSPO has previously called for.
Hesketh-Laird said: “The Scottish salmon sector welcomes this move to tighter regulation. This follows the recent advances the sector has made in controlling lice with non-medicinal means, measures which have brought lice levels down to their lowest level for six years.”
‘Critical to fish health’
Heather Jones, chief executive of the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC), also welcomed the tighter regulations.
“The management, control and prevention of sea lice is critical to the future of fish health and welfare in Scotland’s aquaculture industry and we welcome today’s progress on this important issue,” said Jones.
“The use of innovative and integrated methods will be critical to our success in the future and SAIC is prepared to continue its support of the industry’s efforts.”