Farmed salmon is Scotland’s number 1 food export and according to the industry, directly employs 12,000 workers. It is a sector with ambitious plans to continue growing but it also faces opposition from the very communities it wishes to develop in.
The growth of the sector has outpaced the confusing regulatory framework it sits within.
To set up a fish farm in Scotland planning consent sits with the local authority but it also requires the consent of SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency), the Crown Estate, Marine Scotland Licensing and the Fish Health Inspectorate.
Two years ago the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee reported on its findings into the sector. This week it questioned representatives from the sector and from the relevant public bodies on progress made so far on the committee’s recommendations.
It appears that only limited progress has taken place. Considering that this is the number 1 food export from Scotland and that it seeks to grow considerably, limited progress is not a good result.
Responding to questions from the committee Peter Pollard, Head of Ecology at SEPA, explained that there is greater environmental monitoring and new permit conditions (since June 2020). The process of transferring existing farms over to the new conditions was paused due to Covid and is ‘restarting soon’. Using remote technologies to better monitor compliance is also being developed.
The health of farmed salmon became a big issue for the general public 2 years ago with horrendous images of fish with gill problems and reports of high mortality rates. Charles Allan from the Fish Health Inspectorate described a complex range of issues now affecting farmed salmon: phytoplankton and algae bloom, gill issues and losses during the treatment for sea lice.
Choosing more open locations for fish farms is better for the health of farmed salmon according to the industry but due to the nature of their location – out in less sheltered areas and the increasing occurrence of storm events – that escapes are more likely.
Holes in nets, not surprisingly, are still the top reason for escapes. The other causes are human error and predation. All of these escapes have to be reported and followed up. New regulations on the use of acoustic devices ( now known to affect many marine animals) will result in more focus needed on the equipment that is installed and its maintenance according to Charles Allan.
In 2019, production of Atlantic salmon increased by 47,856 tonnes (30.7%) to 203,881 tonnes. This is the highest ever level of production recorded in Scotland. In addition to that the total number of staff employed in marine salmon production during 2019 increased by 185 to 1,651 staff. (Scottish Fish Farm Production Survey 2019)
This is a rapidly growing sector which is pushing the value of its product to both the local and the Scottish economy at every opportunity.
The planning process is bamboozling. The RECC recommendation 51 stated:
It is therefore of the view that the Scottish Government should, as a matter of priority, initiate a spatial planning exercise with a view to developing strategic guidance specifying those areas across Scotland that are suitable or unsuitable for siting of salmon farms. This work should take full account of existing strategic documents such as the Marine Plan, and incorporate an assessment of the potential impact of salmon farms on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and Priority Marine Feature (PMFs) and the species which inhabit them.
So far that has not happened. The restrictions put in place to limit the spread of Covid19 may have paused and delayed many initiatives but this is more than 2 years on now from that Scottish Parliament committee’s report.
if the industry is to grow, the Committee considers it to be essential that it addresses and identifies solutions to the environmental and fish health challenges it faces as a priority.
If it was seen as a ‘priority’ in 2018 it is even more so as 2020 draws to a close in a sector which is growing – and doing so rapidly.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame
Additional information can also be found here: REVIEW OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF SALMON FARMING IN SCOTLAND