A fish farm caught on film with lice-infested salmon has been reprimanded by the Scottish Government – but the move has been damned as “truly pathetic” by critics.

Marine Scotland fish health inspectors visited Vacasay fish farm on Loch Roag off the isle of Lewis on 5 September. The inspection came two days after The Ferret published underwater footage of scarred and frayed salmon being eaten alive by hundreds of sea lice.

Inspectors have now issued the firm that runs the fish farm, The Scottish Salmon Company, with an “advisory letter” saying that the number of adult female lice per fish had breached the agreed limit of eight for a month.

“If The Scottish Salmon Company intend to continue to farm fish at the Vacasay site, they are advised to undertake a documented review, taking veterinary advice where necessary, of the current measures in place for the prevention, control and reduction of parasites,” the letter said.

Sick salmon at Scottish fish farm revealed on film

But the campaign group, Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, has condemned the letter as “woeful”. The footage of caged salmon in distress at Vacasay was “appalling”, said the group’s solicitor, Guy Linley-Adams.

“Marine Scotland’s advisory letter in response is truly pathetic. It requires nothing of The Scottish Salmon Company,” he said.

“We are at a loss to imagine how bad things would have to get on a fish farm before it would provoke proper enforcement action from Marine Scotland. The minister must demand serious answers from Marine Scotland staff.”

Don Staniford from Scottish Salmon Watch, argued that the company’s licence to operate in Loch Roag should be revoked. “This is wholly unsatisfactory,” he said.

“Instead of a slap on the wrist The Scottish Salmon Company should be fined for a breach of the law. The Scottish Government must surely send out the signal that welfare abuse will not be tolerated.”

According to Staniford, 82 fish farms exceeded lice limits in 2017. “Fish health inspectors should visit all salmon farms reporting lice breaches and force rogue operators to comply with the law,” he said.

He is due to launch a crowdfunding campaign to fund a legal action against salmon farms for breaching animal welfare law, under the banner “Stop suffering and cruelty on Scottish salmon farms”.

We are at a loss to imagine how bad things would have to get on a fish farm before it would provoke proper enforcement action. Guy Linley-Adams, Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland

The photographer and fly fishing guide who shot the film at Vacasay, Corin Smith, argued that Marine Scotland’s letter shows how weak regulation was in Scotland. He called for the release of all weekly sea lice data for the fish farm in order to restore trust.

“Only then can we really begin to understand who knew what and when, and perhaps most importantly, understand what will be done to ensure that the welfare of farmed and wild fish are protected in future.”

The Scottish animal welfare charity, OneKind, hoped that the advisory letter would ensure that the suffering of fish at Vacasay ended. “This case must act as a reminder to the Scottish Government that standards need to be improved across the board before the plans to expand the salmon farming industry go ahead,” said campaigner, Sarah Moyes.

Scottish Labour’s environment spokesperson, Claudia Beamish MSP, has been calling for changes to the law to enforce the release of real-time data on lice numbers at individual fish farms. “The need for such an advisory letter is shocking,” she told The Ferret.

“This breach is serious for animal welfare reasons and for the risk it poses to the reputation of Scottish farmed salmon and to local jobs if The Scottish Salmon Company doesn’t get its act together quickly.”

The Scottish Government pointed out that inspectors had visited farms in Loch Roag on 7, 8 and 13 August to check on lice levels. An additional visit was made on 5 September “following reports of welfare concerns”, said a government spokeswoman.

She added: “At the time of inspection the operator was taking appropriate measures to reduce the numbers of sea lice on site. A sea lice advisory letter has been issued to the operator of Vacasay fish farm in Loch Roag and the farm continues to report to the Fish Health Inspectorate as part of our sea lice compliance policy.”

The Scottish Salmon Company stressed that fish health and welfare was fundamental to responsible salmon farming, but pointed out that operating in the natural environment brought unique challenges. “Sea lice are endemic in the wild and the extraordinary warmer water temperature this summer increased the sea lice challenge, as seen in Loch Roag,” said a company spokesperson.

“Our focus has been to manage the situation and sea lice numbers are now below code of good practice levels. The loch will be fallow by the end of October.”

The company facilitated an inspection by the Scottish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA). “They confirmed that they were wholly satisfied that as a company, we are taking all possible steps to protect the welfare of our fish and effectively deal with the naturally occurring issue of sea lice,” the spokesperson added.

SSPCA under fire over lice-infested salmon filmed at fish farm

The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) also visited Vacasay and found that the actions required were already in place. “The Fish Health Inspectorate visited the site and also found that the company was taking appropriate measures to reduce the numbers of sea lice in accordance with the site specific lice management procedure,” the spokesperson continued.

“We remain fully committed to responsible farming practices, the stringent health management of our stock and working together with the industry and academics to develop sustainable measures to manage health and sea lice challenges. The quality standards we operate under – both regulatory and voluntary – are evidenced by the feedback from the inspections by the SSPCA, the APHA and the Fish Health Inspectorate.”

In full: the letter from Marine Scotland to The Scottish Salmon Company