Expansion of Scotland’s salmon farming industry should be banned until welfare standards are improved, according to a new report from a leading Scottish animal charity.

The report, published today by Edinburgh-based OneKind, says that scientists believe fish are “sentient”, suggesting that their response to pain and other stimuli is remarkably similar to that of mammals, including humans.

The report says that the farming industry “seriously compromises the welfare of salmon”. It highlights major problems in tackling diseases, infestation by parasitic sea lice, premature deaths, congenital health defects, overstocking and escapes, which can leave captive-bred fish struggling to cope with living in the wild.

The report also says that Scottish Government plans from 2016 to almost double annual farmed fish production numbers to over 65 million individuals a year by 2030, should be halted until such problems can be better tackled.

Fears over environmental problems surrounding fish farming in Scottish waters – concentrated on the west coast, Outer Hebrides and northern isles – are well documented. Campaigners say effluent from farms is a serious pollutant, and claim sea-lice infestation and escapes have had a devastating effect on wild salmon and sea trout stocks.

But the new report says the welfare of the fish involved in the industry is often forgotten.

The Ferret reported on 6 August that OneKind had drawn up a league table assessing the welfare standards of farmed fish. We also published an investigation that found leading supermarket chains were stocking fish from firms accused of poor animal welfare.

Revealed: the fish farms worst on animal welfare

Named: supermarkets selling salmon from ‘poor’ welfare firms

The Ferret is now launching an audio documentary examining the science behind increased awareness of fish sentience and pain responses, the fears of campaigners about fish welfare, and the industry response to these concerns.

The new report from OneKind includes a wealth of detail on welfare issues. It shows that in 2014 more than a quarter of the fish that were taken to sea cages from freshwater breeding sites died. Similar numbers have been affected in 2016 and 2017.

The report says that sea lice infestation, where the parasites eat the skin and tissues of the living salmon, causes raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol. But the industry and the Scottish Government set different limits on the number of lice per fish that should trigger treatment.

Even when the higher government levels are exceeded, the report says there is “very little evidence that effective action is taken”.

Another area of concern is the practice of using “cleaner fish” such as wrasse and lumpsuckers to get rid of the lice. These fish will naturally eat the lice off the salmon, and have been touted as a new solution to the lice problem.

However, the report says that the welfare of the cleaner fish themselves is now a problem. “Furthermore, cleaner fish are seen as disposable and are killed at the end of each production cycle, though many will die before the production cycle ends,” it adds.

There are strict rules to prevent too many fish being crowded into cages, which leads to salmon fighting. But OneKind says that data it collected shows that 15 Scottish farms exceeded their biomass limits, in total 40 times, between 2013 and 2017.

As well as a moratorium on industry expansion, the report’s recommendations include:

  • banning the use of cleaner fish until welfare standards are produced;
  • a new limit on stocking densities;
  • welfare-led trigger levels for sea lice, with compliance properly enforced;
  • mandatory welfare assessments of new disease treatment methods before they are brought in; and
  • research into whether the kind of environmental enrichment we see in domestic fish tanks, such as plants and coloured rocks, could benefit salmon welfare.
There is no doubt that animal welfare is seriously compromised, and urgent and radical action is needed if the suffering is to end. Harry Huyton, OneKind

OneKind points out that poor fish welfare is bad for the industry itself. “Protecting the welfare of these fish and preventing suffering is a moral imperative, but it is also critical to the viability of the industry itself,” the report says. “Consumers expect healthy, happy and sustainable fish, and poor welfare also leads to direct economic losses.”

OneKind director, Harry Huyton, said: “Mass mortality, sea lice infestations and disease have become endemic to the industry. There is no doubt that animal welfare is seriously compromised, and urgent and radical action is needed if the suffering is to end.”

He added: “We’re calling for a moratorium on further growth until it can be shown that farmed salmon have good lives that are worth living. The government, industry and non-governmental organisations should be focused exclusively on working together to solve these serious problems, not allowing the promise of economic gain to trump the lives of farmed animals.”

Apart from welfare recommendations for the fish themselves, the report also says the shooting of seals which attack salmon farms should be banned, as should be the use of acoustic deterrent devices which can scare the seals away but which also impact on whales and dolphins.

Mapped: every Scottish salmon farm that shot seals

In response to questions about fish welfare, the chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, Julie Hesketh-Laird, said: “Scottish salmon farmers rear their fish to the highest welfare standards and on the basis that fish in their care are capable of feeling pain, an underlying reason why the industry takes its welfare responsibility so seriously.

“Fish health and welfare are at the heart of successful Scottish salmon farming. Healthy fish mean satisfied customers and good business, so it’s in everyone’s interest to operate to the highest of welfare standards.”

Hesketh-Laird said Scottish farm pens are stocked to some of the lowest densities in the world. Around 70 per cent of Scottish salmon are “RSPCA Farm Assured” and the remaining salmon “are reared to the same high standards.”

A new “farmed fish health framework” drawn up by the industry, government and regulators  set out a “roadmap of activity to ensure farmed fish health reaches the high standards that we aspire to”, she said. “We are committed to sustainable and steady growth of this important Scottish farming sector.”

Overall the industry lice averages for March of this year were the lowest since July 2014 and the underlying trend is downwards, she said. Seal shooting is declining and acoustic deterrent devices have no impact on species other than seals, she argued.

“The industry understands that we must overcome production challenges and minimise wider impacts if we are to grow and continue to provide jobs and investment and other social benefits that the rural community and economy benefit from.”

At the end of the day healthy fish mean satisfied customers, and good business. It’s in everyone’s best interest to encourage good animal welfare. Steve Bracken, Marine Harvest

When questioned about salmon welfare, Marine Harvest, whose Poll Na Gille fish farm in Argyll topped the league table of farms with poor welfare indicators, argued that fish health and welfare was at the heart of successful Scottish salmon farming.

The company’s business support manager in Scotland, Steve Bracken, said: “At the end of the day healthy fish mean satisfied customers, and good business. It’s in everyone’s best interest to encourage good animal welfare. The biological needs of the fish guide responsible business decisions as healthy animals typically reflect profitability.”

OneKind has launched a petition for a moratorium with partners the Scottish Salmon Think Tank, Save Seil Sound and the Scottish Aquaculture Reform Network.

This story is part of an investigation into fish farming funded by Eurogroup for Animals in Brussels via OneKind, under an agreement giving The Ferret full editorial control. Photo thanks to US National Institute of Standards and Technology.