Government officials raised concerns over the import to Scotland of salmon eggs from a Norwegian company called AquaGen after the outbreak of a deadly virus.
Documents obtained under freedom of information law reveal that fears were expressed by both Scottish and UK government officials over Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA), a devastating viral disease transmitted through water affecting fish.
Under European Union (EU) legislation urgent action must be taken to contain an outbreak of ISA. There are no treatments for the virus and no licensed vaccines.
Hundreds of thousands of fish have previously been slaughtered in bids to control outbreaks of ISA, with affected fish farms disinfected and placed under close surveillance.
In recent years, millions of salmon ova have been imported from Norway to Scottish salmon farms and hatcheries, including 22.6 million in 2016 from AquaGen, one of the world’s major suppliers.
Documents requested by Scottish Salmon Watch have now revealed there was an outbreak of ISA at an AquaGen site in Norway in July 2017.
The company confirmed to The Ferret there was an outbreak two years ago but said that its ISA free status was reinstated in November 2018, adding there was no risk to Scottish farms.
AquaGen said its ISA free status was “immediately suspended” in July 2017 following the discovery of the virus. But emails reveal that concerns were raised by the UK authorities in November 2018 when exports of salmon ova to Scotland were due to resume.
On 7 November 2018, a senior fish health inspector in the Scottish Government said they were “very wary of an export happening”.
This was in relation to a plan by AquaGen to export salmon ova from Rimstad to Scotland on 21 November 2018 “2 days after their 60 day assessment period is completed for the reinstatement of their ISA free status”.
The email continued: “I am aware that there have been some questions raised by the UK and other countries. Do you know if these have been resolved?”
On the 8 November 2018, an official at the UK government’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) also raised concerns in an email over the export of ova from Rimstad to a Scottish farm.
“Until our concerns have been adequately addressed by the Norwegian CA (Competent Authority) we would support Marine Scotland in refusing the import of salmon ova from this site,” the official wrote.
On 14 November 2018, the UK government again raised objections to the import of ova to a Scottish fish farm from Norway scheduled for 21 November 2018.
The email said: “We do not support the declaration pending the clarification of a number of issues. Please note that this is a critical issue for Scotland in particular, as there is an export of ova from Rimstad to a Scottish farm due on 21 November 2018, only two days after the 60 day consultation period.”
The documents also show that in July 2017, Hendrix Genetics – owners of Landcatch, the only independent Scottish salmon egg producer – asked the Scottish Government, “if the ISA outbreaks in Norway, in particular AquaGen, would have any effect on their ability to export eggs into Scotland”.
In a later email to Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, in February 2018, Landcatch accused the Scottish Government of taking a “massive risk” by allowing salmon eggs from Norway and Iceland to flood Scottish salmon farms, citing the danger of “transfer of ISA from infected countries such as Norway”.
Scottish Salmon Watch accused the salmon industry of playing “a deadly game of Norwegian roulette.” The group’s director, Don Staniford, called for a “complete ban” on ova imports.
He said: “If the Scottish Government is so proud of ‘Scottish’ salmon then why not source ova from Scotland? Scottish salmon is a sham, scam and a consumer con which should be avoided like the plague.”
AquaGen said in response: “AquaGen complies fully with EU animal and fish health regulations when exporting salmon eggs to Scotland. All eggs are produced and exported from ISA free compartments approved by the EU.
“In July 2017 there was an early detection of ISA in broodfish at one of our sites. ISA free status was immediately suspended. All stock that were affected or located at sites in the area were removed. Sites were disinfected and fallowed in a stringent process certified by the Norwegian authorities.
“In November 2018 following a lengthy consultation process we received approval of ISA-free status. Exports to Scotland resumed based on entirely land-reared broodstock produced at Nofima Sunndalsøra or at AquaGen Profunda, before stripping and egg incubation at AquaGen Rimstad.
“Therefore, the first shipment of eggs from this site came from broodstock that were entirely land-reared and never in contact with stocks that were affected and removed in 2017. They were certified ISA free according to EU regulations. No egg deliveries to Scotland have been stopped or destroyed.”
According to Scottish Salmon Watch, the outbreak of ISA in Norway delayed a shipment of 2.5 million salmon ova from AquaGen to a firm called Scottish Sea Farms for a new hatchery in Oban. But this denied by the company, and prompted a public argument on social media.
— Scottish Sea Farms (@scotseafarms) February 14, 2019
Ralph Bickerdike, Scottish Sea Farms’ Head of Fish Health, said: “There are strict regulations and robust controls in place to ensure that only those eggs with a health status equivalent to that of Scotland – in this instance, ISA-free – can be imported.
“AquaGen is the leading operator of selective breeding programmes for the farmed salmon sector globally and Scottish Sea Farms selects the best genetic traits to ensure our salmon thrive and survive in Scottish waters, optimising fish health, welfare and survival.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “All imports of salmon ova to Scotland are carried out in accordance with well-established rules laid out in EU and Scottish legislation, as well as in internationally agreed standards, to minimise the risk of cross contamination and disease.
“We rigorously enforce these rules to protect the world-class standard of Scottish farmed salmon.”
The ISA virus was first reported in Norway in 1984, but has since afflicted Canada, the USA, the Faroe Islands, Ireland and Scotland. Scotland has had two outbreaks of ISA, in 1998-99 and 2008-09, both of which were successfully eradicated.
The virus can also be spread through the movement of live fish, by the discharge of untreated blood and through contact with infected vehicles and equipment.