Science

Protecting Scotland’s Wild Salmon

“The decline in wild salmon is a global issue, but is keenly felt in Scotland, famed for this iconic species. We have a responsibility to mitigate the problems that face our fish populations to improve their chances of survival and reproduction. The measures we put in place in our rivers, lochs and coastal waters to slow the decline, and enable wild salmon to become more resilient to threats like climate change, are vitally important.” – Peter Pollard, SEPA Head of Ecology

image credit Noel Donaldson

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has developed a new regulatory framework which it hopes will protect wild salmon. Numbers of this amazing fish have dropped dramatically,  declining from 8-10 million in the 1970s, to an estimated 3 million today. 

Sea lice from large escapes of fish from salmon farms are a major problem. The new framework is designed to protect wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout during their migration to sea by defining wild salmon protection zones. A sea lice exposure threshold will be applied during smolt migration from rivers. This is designed to reduce the risk of exposure to sea lice among wild salmon and sea trout during their migration to sea.

All proposals for new marine finfish farms or increases in fish numbers at existing finfish farms will be subject to an assessment of the risk posed to wild salmonids.  The new controls will come into force in the second half of 2023, which will initially cover the release of lice from new and expanded farms to prevent additional impacts upon the 2024 smolt run.

“We welcome this effort by SEPA to introduce a robust system for the conservation of Atlantic salmon. We hope that a similarly robust framework can be developed soon for sea trout. The current situation regarding sea trout in Orkney is of great concern, with a serious and ongoing salmon lice problem at farms all over the islands.”

Orkney Trout Fishing Association

Scottish farmed salmon is a successful industry but has faced growing criticism over the impact chemical use and sea lice has on other marine life. It is also under pressure due to additional challenges exporting to the EU since the UK left the world’s largest free market. Threat to Scottish Salmon as Brexit Bites into Trade

image credit Noel Donaldson

The migration of wild salmon is one of Nature’s marvels. Atlantic salmon live in freshwater as juveniles, migrate to sea as adults, and return to the river environment to spawn. The dramatic drop in numbers is great cause for concern. The sea lice framework will sit alongside SEPA’s other regulatory tools to try and protect this fabulous fish.

Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon said:

“Populations of Atlantic salmon are at a crisis point and we have to act urgently to protect one of our most famous species. The pressures on stocks are truly international, with the impact of climate change being felt across the entire North Atlantic region.

“However, there is much that we can do in our rivers, lochs and coastal waters to help build resilience and protect biodiversity. The measures set out in this consultation will help ensure the protection and recovery of Scotland’s wild Atlantic salmon.”

Implementation of the sea lice framework will mean that, for the first time, all significant pressures on the water environment from marine finfish farms will be regulated under a single regulatory framework. When a new fish farm is proposed SEPA will in future include the modelled cumulative impact assessments of solid organic waste discharges, bath medicine discharges, nutrient discharges and sea lice releases.  The inclusion of sea lice and nutrients (previously managed by local authorities) will simply the regulatory process so that all water pollution issues can be dealt with by SEPA.

Peter Pollard, SEPA’s Head of Ecology, explained:

“Our new framework is an important addition to our work, creating a world-leading approach that will allow Scotland to protect the full lifecycle of salmon from breeding grounds to their journey out to sea. SEPA is clear that our job is to make sure environmental standards protect the water environment for the people of Scotland – and we make sure that all industries meet those. That’s unequivocally our focus.

“Our ambition is to give operators and communities confidence that environmental considerations are addressed early in the development process of new farms and to drive improvements at existing farms to improve the condition of Scotland’s salmon stocks.

“We’ll continue to undertake a programme of engagement with operators, communities and other stakeholders as we develop and move towards its implementation.”

A document about feedback on SEPA’s consultation for the introduction of a regulatory regime to control sea-lice loss from fish farms is available here:  consultation hub.

Image credit Noel Donaldson

Fiona Grahame