One of Scotland’s most senior fish farm watchdogs has quit to join the fish farming industry, prompting concerns about the effectiveness of environmental regulation.

The Ferret can reveal that Anne Anderson has resigned as £80,000-a-year chief officer for compliance at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), where she oversaw the £2 billion fish farming industry. She is going to become director of sustainability at the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO), which represents multinational fish farming companies.

Her surprise move has sparked a chorus of criticism from environmental groups, who accuse Sepa of lacking “bark or bite”. They are calling on Scottish ministers to ensure that “revolving doors” between regulators and industry do not result in independent regulation falling prey to “industry creep”.

The Ferret reported in December 2017 that Anderson, then head of Sepa’s regulatory services in the north, attended an anniversary dinner hosted by SSPO. She was also given breakfast by two fish farming companies in June 2017, resulting in allegations that Sepa was being “schmoozed” by polluters.

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For the last year Anderson has been leading work at Sepa to develop a new plan for regulating the fish farming industry. The plan has been drafted and is due to be agreed by Sepa soon.

But in the last few days she surprised Sepa staff by telling them that she was leaving to join SSPO. Her move is part of a major reshuffle at SSPO following the appointment of former Scotch Whisky Association boss, Julie Hesketh-Laird, as chief executive in January 2018.

SSPO announced on 18 September that it was appointing The Times Scottish political editor, Hamish Macdonell, to a newly created role as director of strategic engagement.

The farming of salmon, which earns £600 million a year as Scotland’s biggest food export, has been hit by a raft of problems with disease and lice in recent years. The industry has been strongly criticised by one committee of MSPs at Holyrood and is under investigation by another, with a report due to be finalised in the next few weeks.

Anderson will have been involved in the highest level political conversations about the future regulation of the industry in Scotland. Guy Linley-Adams, Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland

Guy Linley-Adams, solicitor for the campaign group Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, pointed out that Anderson had given oral evidence for Sepa to the Scottish parliamentary inquiries on fish farming. “For her to now pop up working for the industry cannot, or should not be very comfortable for Sepa or for the Scottish Government,” he said.

“Anderson will have been involved in the highest level political conversations about the future regulation of the industry in Scotland. At the very least, there should be a prolonged period of garden leave and we hope she will give assurances  that she will not use confidential information gathered while at Sepa when she moves on.”

Don Staniford, director of Scottish Salmon Watch, claimed that two former Sepa pollution officers had previously joined a fish farming company. “Sepa’s revolving door policy with the salmon farming industry is a bad joke and leaves the nasty taste of farmed salmon in the mouth,” he said.

“There are gaping holes in the environmental regulation of salmon farming in Scotland, which are getting ever wider as salmon farming expands. Sepa, a watchdog without bark or bite, should be renamed the Scottish Environment Pollution Agency.”

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Lynn Schweisfurth from Scottish Salmon Think-Tank, highlighted other instances in which local authority regulators had joined the fish farming industry. “From the outside it looks like the industry is preparing to increase its access to government authorities as it bids to double farmed salmon production by 2030,” she said.

“The Scottish government must ensure that our regulatory framework remains independent and does not fall victim to industry creep.”

Green environment spokesperson Mark Ruskell MSP urged Sepa to shift from being a “critical friend” to being a “robust regulator” of the farmed salmon industry. “New regulations under consultation to govern the industry will be a key test as to how far Sepa is prepared to stand up for the environment against a well funded and recruited industry lobby,” he said.

Given her move to a trade association for a sector regulated by Sepa, Ms Anderson will leave the organisation on Friday 21 September. Spokesperson, Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

Sepa confirmed that Anderson was leaving. “On Monday 17 September Anne Anderson notified Sepa of her resignation to take up the role of sustainability director at the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation,” a Sepa spokesperson told The Ferret.

“Given her move to a trade association for a sector regulated by Sepa, Ms Anderson will leave the organisation on Friday 21 September. Sepa will shortly announce a revised regulatory regime that will firmly strengthen the regulation of the sector.”

According to Sepa, the new regime will include “fresh modelling using the best available science, enhanced site based environmental monitoring, a new approach to sustainable siting of farms, and new approach for controlling the use of medicines aligned with encouraging innovation in the containment of marine waste.”

The spokesperson added: “We’ll also announce details of a comprehensive programme of public engagement across Scotland, encouraging communities to directly speak with Sepa and have their say on the revised regulatory regime.”

After being approached by The Ferret, SSPO issued a statement announcing Anderson’s appointment to the “newly created” post of sustainability director. But the industry body declined to disclose her salary and said that no start date had yet been confirmed.

“Anne will develop and coordinate an industry strategy for sustainable business to support responsible growth. She will champion industry best-practice in farming excellence and fish health as well as supporting the industry to deliver on its commitment to the 10 year farmed fish health framework and other industry initiatives,” the statement said.

Anderson was quoted saying she was “delighted to join the SSPO and have a leading role in helping this exciting and important Scottish industry develop sustainably.” She added: “The sector holds a strategic position in Scotland’s and the UK’s food and export economies and I am looking forward to helping it demonstrate its significant production achievements and innovations.”

SSPO chief executive Julie Hesketh-Laird, was also delighted. “Anne brings a range of skills from her previous role in Scotland’s environmental regulator, which will be invaluable in supporting the Scottish salmon farming industry’s drive for continuous improvement and excellence in fish farming, fish health and other production practices through the supply chain,” she said.

“The Scottish salmon farming industry is a source of great pride for Scotland and for the men and women who farm our high-quality salmon in some of Scotland’s most remote communities. She will strengthen the SSPO’s expertise at a busy time as we continue to shine a light on industry good-practice and achievements, to ensure our fantastic sector thrives.”

The Scottish Government declined to comment.

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This story was updated at 13.00 on 19 September 2018 to include a statement from the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation.