Video allegations that fish farm pollution has damaged rare and beautiful wildlife are under investigation by two Scottish Government watchdogs.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) and NatureScot are examining claims that internationally important and brightly coloured reefs in Loch Creran, on the west coast, have been harmed by toxic pesticides and wastes discharged by a caged salmon company.
A film produced by campaigners highlights evidence from a dive in the loch in 2021 that one reef has disappeared in the last ten years. They warn that now is the “last chance” to save the reefs and are calling for urgent action by regulators.
The fish farming company, however, rejects the film’s allegations as “misleading” and describes the loch’s wildlife as “vibrant”. It points to scientific evidence that the reefs have “a natural lifecycle of growth and collapse”.
Loch Creran, about six miles north of Oban in Argyll, was designated as a special area of conservation in order to protect its reefs in 2005. According to NatureScot, it had “the world’s largest area of serpulid reefs”.
The reefs are built by organ-pipe, or serpulid, worms, and form structures like bushes on the seabed. The worms live in hundreds of small, white tubes and when feeding put out forests of feathery pink, orange and red tentacles.
The reefs are also a haven for other marine wildlife, including fish, crabs, lobsters, starfish, prawns and sponges. Research has shown that they can be home to over 70 different species.
But the reefs in Loch Creran have been suffering. NatureScot has given them the status “unfavourable declining” following research in 2020 suggesting a 20 per cent decline between 2005 and 2014-19.
The loch hosts a salmon farm run by Norwegian-owned Scottish Sea Farms, which had a turnover of £139 million in 2020. The company also operates two shoreline facilities: a processing plant at South Shian and a hatchery at Barcaldine, which it is planning to expand.
A new video produced by the Friends of Loch Creran and the Coastal Communities Network argues that the combined impact of pesticides from the salmon farm and waste from the hatchery could have contributed to the reefs’ decline.
It says that a pesticide used to kill sea lice, emamectin, has been released into the loch in breach of environmental standards prior to 2014. It points to evidence suggesting that the chemical can remain toxic in the water for four years.
The video also alleges that discharges of dissolved nitrogen from the hatchery are too large to meet Sepa’s pollution rules with the present outfall pipe. The company says it is planning to install a new pipe.
Campaigners accuse Sepa of failing to assess the cumulative impact of pollution, and of failing to mention or investigate a potentially harmful bloom of plankton in the loch in 2021. “It is now our last chance to save this globally unique marine habitat”, they say.
Their video shows a dive in October 2021 at the same spot in Loch Creran where the BBC filmed a healthy serpulid reef in 2011. The resulting footage shows only damaged and decaying reefs.
“It was very depressing,” said the diver, marine biologist and wildlife tour skipper David Ainsley. “I found very few small serpulids still alive on the rocks and I filmed a lot of rubble.”
The filmmaker, Andrew Holder from the Friends of Loch Creran, pointed out that the loch was meant to be “highly protected” because of its reefs. “Watchdogs Sepa and Marine Scotland must get some teeth and start protecting it,” he told The Ferret.
“Loch Creran is a unique and fragile marine ecosystem of world importance. Fish farms and factories should have no place there.”
The Coastal Communities Network brings together 23 local groups concerned about the marine environment. “The reefs are disappearing before our eyes, despite having Scotland’s highest level of protection,” said the network’s spokesperson, John Aitchison.
“The Scottish Government is obliged to be certain beyond reasonable scientific doubt that the lochs’ reefs are not being damaged by pesticides, in combination with other aquaculture impacts.”
He added: “Sepa and NatureScot have not assessed this combined risk. They do seem to be taking it seriously now but they need to catch up fast. It remains to be seen how urgently they will act.”
Sepa was “concerned” about the loss of the reefs. “The cause of the decline is not known at this stage and we will be working with NatureScot to look into all potential causes, including natural ecological factors and pressures from human activity in and around the loch,” said the agency’s head of ecology, Peter Pollard.
“We hope the findings will help target action to protect the reef. We are in the process of arranging meetings with representatives of the Coastal Community Network to talk to them about the investigation plans as a valued local stakeholder.”
NatureScot was also worried by the declining condition of reefs in some parts of the loch. “We are working closely with Sepa and other key stakeholders to improve our understanding of the reasons behind the decline, which may be related to natural and climate-related changes,” said the agency’s head of sustainable coasts and seas, Cathy Tilbrook.
“Part of this work will involve reviewing the various pressures associated with activities in and around the loch. We hope this joint approach will help us to conserve the reefs in Loch Creran over the long term.”
Scottish Sea Farms denied that it was to blame for damaging the reefs. “Protecting the water quality and rich biodiversity of Loch Creran is in all our interests,” said the company’s head of sustainability and development, Anne Anderson.
“This is something best achieved by looking to the available science, which on this specific subject is provided by NatureScot and points to serpulid reefs having a natural lifecycle of growth and collapse, as documented in other Scottish lochs.
“The same scientific research shows that younger serpulid reefs are still present within the loch, as are other sensitive designated features including horse mussel beds and flame shell beds, all of which require high quality water to survive. This is a vibrant loch.”
Anderson, who worked as Sepa’s chief compliance officer regulating the fish farming industry until September 2018, added: “Quite simply, the expert independent opinion doesn’t support the campaigners’ hypothesis and it’s misleading to suggest otherwise.
“It’s also important to bear in mind that we’ve been farming in Loch Creran since 1988, regularly receiving a Sepa environmental rating of ‘excellent’ or ‘good’, and that, of all the different activities that take place in or around the Loch, salmon farming is the most rigorously regulated by Sepa and Marine Scotland.”
In a 1,000 word statement to The Ferret, Scottish Sea Farms pointed out that the reefs were in a different part of the loch from its discharges. It highlighted a comment by NatureScot that they collapsed because they “eventually get so large that they can no longer support themselves”.
The company also stressed that its salmon farm had maintained “overall environmental compliance”, and that the seabed beneath had been assessed as “satisfactory” in regular surveys.
All its facilities at Loch Creran were subject to pollution regulations, and sampling in 2021-22 had shown dissolved nitrogen levels to be well within water quality standards. Water was treated to reduce discharges, which complied with licence conditions.
In addition Scottish Sea Farms made six “corrections” to claims made in the video. It said emamectin levels had exceeded environmental standards four times before 2012, not nine as stated in the film.
Since then samples collected in 2015, 2017 and 2019 had been “fully compliant”, the company said. The amount of organic waste produced annually by the farm was “less than half” that alleged.
The company added that footage claiming to show copper-based anti-foulant being washed into the loch was just water being used to clean marine growth off salmon pens.
The full statement from Scottish Sea Farms can be downloaded here.