Environmental campaigners have accused Scotland’s salmon farming industry of putting profit before welfare. The industry is also accused of repeatedly breaching limits on sea lice infestation, escapes, and fish mortalities.
They want a temporary ban on all new fish farms until far stricter controls are in place. The industry, however, wants to more than double production by up to 400,000 tonnes by 2030.
Strict regulations proposals will soon be published by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa), the country’s pollution and water quality watchdog. They stated that compliance by Scotland’s fish farms with existing standards covering seabed pollution, waste, chemical use, and water quality had fallen from 86% to 81%.
The new regulations would “include more powerful modelling using the best available science, enhanced environmental monitoring, a new approach to sustainable siting of farms, and a new approach for controlling the use of medicines”.
The Scottish parliament’s rural economy committee is expected to issue a critical report in the coming days. It may stop short of backing calls for a moratorium but will urge ministers in Edinburgh to overhaul regulations.
In March, Holyrood’s environment committee warned the industry’s expansion goal “will be unsustainable and may cause irrecoverable damage to the environment” unless standards improved markedly.
Even so, Denton and his colleague Andy Bing, suggested there were better, more sustainable techniques the industry could follow. Even though it already puts less fish in its cages than most, running a stocking density of 1.5% fish against an industry norm of 2% “biomass” per cage.
It promotes “non-medicinal farming” where wrasse, act as cleaner fish to peck off any sea lice on the salmon. Yet wrasses’ role as a highly sought-after solution to sea lice infestation has pushed its price as high as £50,000 a tonne – the most expensive by weight in Europe.
Rather than treated with the copper-based antifoulants standard in the industry, its cages are air-dried to remove algae. They occasionally use hydrogen peroxide or fresh water baths to treat amoebic gill disease, which has at times plagued some farms.
Its farms lie empty, or fallow, for five months rather than an industry norm of five weeks, to allow the seabed to recover and suppress sea lice numbers. They say that a combination of tactics works, as six out of eight of their cages, have been entirely sea lice free this year, and two had negligible numbers.
It has had serious issues with sea lice in the past and has shot seals too, under licences that conservationists believe are too lax.
Bing said, “If we had unsustainable fish food, we would run out; if our stocking policy damaged the seabed we would have our licence revoked.”
Yet Loch Duart sells into the elite end of the market. Its fish commands prices 20-25% higher than their competitors.
Andrew Graham-Stewart, of Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland. It campaigns to protect wild salmon and trout stocks, which are threatened by escapes of farmed fish and the sea lice they attract.
“Scottish ministers need to decide whether they’re going to continue to allow the industry to expand without addressing all the major issues associated with it,” he said. “ in effect, the natural environment in the West Highlands and islands will continue to be effectively and systematically destroyed.”
Ian Roberts, a spokesman for Norwegian-owned Marine Harvest, said the firm would “embrace tighter regulations”.
Roberts said. “We want regulations that are going to secure our business and properly manage our business because we want to be here in the future.”