Police Scotland and the RSPCA are investigating after an animal welfare campaigner filmed lice infested salmon at farms run by the world’s largest farmed salmon company.
The footage was taken earlier this month at four farms owned by Mowi by Scottish Salmon Watch (SSW) which submitted a complaint to Police Scotland’s Wildlife Crime Unit.
The underwater videos – shot by SSW director and activist Don Staniford – show lice infested salmon and dead fish in cages where fish are farmed by the Norwegian firm, prompting critics to raise fresh concerns about animal welfare and oversight of the farmed salmon industry.
Mowi said in response, however, that SSW’s footage shows “isolated examples” and pointed out that it was cleared in March this year by RSPCA Assured after similar claims were made by critics. The firm accused Staniford of being selective and “unfair” with his secret filming.
SSW filmed underwater at farms run by Mowi on 16 and 17 July 2021. The campaign group says its footage shows dead lumpsuckers, aka cleaner fish, floating on the surface of cages and lice infested salmon swimming in a shoal of wild fish, believed to be herring. There was clear evidence of “unnecessary suffering” which would be a breach of Section 19 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, SSW claimed.
Police Scotland and RSPCA Assured – the RSPCA’s scheme which accredits firms selling fish that adhere to animal welfare standards – told The Ferret they were investigating the allegations.
SSW has urged people to boycott farmed salmon. Staniford said: “When will the public wake up to the deceptive marketing and glossy greenwashing behind the toxic salmon farming industry? Mowi has been exposed by secret filming. Consumers should avoid Scottish salmon like the proverbial plague.”
Maggie Brotherston of Friends of Loch Creran, a group concerned about the “industrialisation” of the sea loch on the west coast of Scotland, described the footage as “shocking” and said secret filming is “vital to exposing welfare abuse” on salmon farms.
“Undercover investigators are doing a remarkable job ground-truthing the blatant greenwashing via RSPCA Assured,” she added.
According to Andrew Holder of Dip in the Blue, which campaigns to protect the marine environment, Scottish salmon farming is a “horror story”. He said: “The gruesome video footage shot inside salmon farms keeps on getting even more hideous. When will the RSPCA stop condoning the torture of millions of farmed salmon in Scotland, by allowing it to be labeled as RSPCA Assured?”
In reply, Mowi said SSW had previously made “unsupported claims” and accused Staniford of targeting individual fish “showing signs of distress” with an underwater camera.
Ben Hadfield, COO of Mowi Scotland, said the way SSW presented the footage was “very unfair” and “lacks credibility” adding that the company cares for the welfare of salmon and does not like to see “even one animal suffer”. He added: “Our experienced farmers are supported by fish health experts and veterinarians that help to ensure animal welfare is attended to every day, and these results are inspected by professional third-party organisations.”
Hadfield said that with all types of farming, there will “unfortunately be times when individual animals are in distress” and these isolated examples can be “understandably concerning to the public as well as the farmer”.
“Farmers and veterinarians will do whatever they can to treat animals under their care, or, when circumstances require it, may have to choose to humanely euthanise the animal,” he continued.
Mowi also pointed out that as part of regular fish welfare inspections, a veterinarian attended the processing of salmon at its Blar Mhor plant in Fort William on 19 July, and commented the salmon were in “really great condition with acceptable parasite load”. The firm has also produced its own video in response to SSW, which you can view here.
A Police Scotland spokesperson said: “We have received a report of animal welfare concerns and are liaising with SSPCA. Enquiries are at an early stage.”
A spokesperson for RSPCA Assured said it was “concerned by some of the images that have been shared with us”. They added: “As soon as they were brought to our attention, we immediately launched an investigation into those farms we understand are featured.
“These investigations are ongoing. Animal welfare is our absolute priority and the focus of our assurance scheme, therefore any complaints are always taken very seriously and thoroughly looked into as standard practice.”
Photo thanks to iStock and Violetastock
This article was updated on 29 July 2021 at 12.10 to note that RSPCA Assured has finished its investigation.
It said: “We were concerned by some of the images that were shared with us. As soon as they were brought to our attention, we immediately launched an investigation into those farms we understand are featured in the footage.
“Animal welfare is our absolute priority and the focus of our assurance scheme, therefore any complaints are always taken very seriously and thoroughly looked into as standard practice.
“These farms have now been visited by a specially trained RSPCA Farm Livestock Officer and an RSPCA Assured Assessor. During their visit they did not find any of the problems highlighted in the images taken earlier this month and were satisfied that the fish they saw were being properly managed and cared for.
“Any allegations of animal welfare issues, or breaches of the RSPCA Assured membership agreement, are taken very seriously and always thoroughly investigated. Thankfully, welfare concerns on RSPCA Assured certified farms are extremely rare, and many millions of farm animals are having a better life thanks to the work of the charity.”