Caged salmon farms are being investigated by the Scottish Government’s green watchdog for allegedly breaching regulations designed to protect the environment.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has told The Ferret that it has launched “a programme of unannounced visits to confirm compliance with regulatory requirements” at coastal and island fish farms run by multinational companies.
Unnamed salmon farms on the Western Isles have recently been targeted, according to Sepa, and one company’s Scottish headquarters has received an unexpected visit.
Fish farms are required to abide by environmental standards covering chemicals, pollution and biomass. Hydrogen peroxide and emamectin are used by the industry used to kill the sea lice than can plague caged fish.
The BBC has named the Norwegian-owned fish farming multinational, Mowi – formerly Marine Harvest – as one of the firms under investigation “for possible misreporting of chemical use”. But Mowi has denied any wrongdoing and said it used chemicals sparingly.
According to the BBC, Sepa inspectors removed documents during an unannounced inspection of Mowi’s UK head office in Fort William in May. The company reportedly said the visit was part of an audit and was not unannounced.
Mowi has posted online a pre-emptive defence of its business in response to the Panorama programme.
The company said it was seeking to minimise use of chemical medicines to treat salmon. Although its computer models predicting the weight of fish can sometimes be “wrong”, the company stressed that corrections were made.
“Our use of medicines is subject to regular, unannounced inspections by Sepa and Marine Scotland,” Mowi disclosed.
In September 2018 we released video footage showing scarred and frayed salmon at a farm off the island of Lewis, prompting animal cruelty investigations. In April we reported that one company, Loch Duart, had ceased branding its business as “sustainable”.
Farmed salmon is Scotland’s biggest food export, earning more than £600 million a year. But in recent years it has been hit by a raft of problems including pollution, disease and sea lice.
The industry has been strongly criticised by two Holyrood committees and is now facing a regulatory crackdown by Sepa. The industry remains committed, however, to doubling its business from £1.8 billion in 2016 to £3.6 billion by 2030 – and is backed by the Scottish Government.
Sepa is planning to introduce a new “regulatory framework” for fish farming on 1 June. This “will strengthen the protection of the marine environment for the people of Scotland,” said a Sepa spokesperson.
The agency had set up a new “enforcement unit to ensure compliance is non-negotiable”.
Sepa added: “In addition to continuous review of data from a variety of sources and conducting enhanced environmental monitoring, officers are engaged in a programme of unannounced visits to confirm compliance with regulatory requirements.
“The most recent inspections have been carried out in the Western Isles and were informed by the information received during our Scotland-wide, public consultation in winter 2018 as part of a package of firm, evidence-based proposals for a revised regulatory regime.
“Sepa is unable to comment further on its current audit and unannounced inspection programme underway at present.”
Sepa also told the BBC that it had advised Mowi on 23 April 2019 of an audit at its Stob Ban offices in Fort William.
“Mowi was subject to an unexpected inspection at Stob Ban, Fort William, on 1 May 2019 and a further announced inspection on 7 May 2019 to obtain further information.”
Sepa’s chief executive, Terry A’Hearn, said: “If companies do the wrong thing, we’re there to find that out and make sure they improve their game. If that’s going to take tough action, you can be assured we’ll take it.”
Under the heading “BBC Panorama Response” on its website, Mowi outlined its “commitment to sustainable salmon farming”. The company’s communications director, Ian Roberts, was interviewed by the BBC.
“We have confidence in what we’re reporting for medications, it is used sparingly, we of course vaccinate our fish to protect them from health, fish health challenges,” said Roberts.
“And we have confidence in the numbers that we’re providing so of course we’re supporting Sepa in their audit which has been ongoing for six months and involving the industry.”
Mowi emphasised that it was “very supportive” of strong industry regulation. “We believe in transparency of data that is of interest to consumers, and that is why we voluntarily publish data on our website above what is legally required,” the company said.
“We believe that Scottish laws governing aquaculture are some of the strongest in the world and we welcome that – we want customers to be confident in the salmon we raise. We also expect that regulations will evolve with our sector as it grows.”
Approximately 300 audits of our business activities and product quality occur each year, many of them unannounced. Mowi
Mowi was aiming for “zero use” of medicines. “In 2018 we used just 10 grammes of licensed antibiotics to treat 1,000 kilogrammes of salmon,” the company added.
“We employ qualified vets and fish health professionals and our use of medicines is subject to regular, unannounced inspections by Sepa and Marine Scotland.”
Mowi pointed out that it had to accurately report the weight of fish to ensure that farm biomass limits were not exceeded. “Sometimes the computer model can be wrong,” the company said.
“If the actual weight of the fish is different to the computer model prediction, we will make the corrections to ensure accuracy. Our most accurate estimate of the weight of salmon swimming on the farm is reported to regulators monthly.”
Mowi added: “Our activities are regulated, licensed and inspected and approximately 300 audits of our business activities and product quality occur each year, many of them unannounced.
“Third-party audits will inspect food safety, health and safety, fish welfare, environmental and social compliance according to specific standards.”
The fish farming industry’s critics, however, have reacted to news of Sepa’s investigations by calling for tough action. “Salmon farming is a toxic industry addicted to a lethal plume of pesticides,” said Don Staniford from Scottish Salmon Watch.
“Sepa must act to close down all salmon farmers flouting the law.”
Sally Campbell, a marine ecologist and campaigner, told the BBC: “Healthy food should not be produced at the cost of our environment on which ultimately we all depend.”
But the industry insisted it was aiming for “sustainable growth”. Julie Hesketh-Laird, chief executive of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, which represents fish farming companies, said: “We want the public and anybody with an interest in Scottish salmon to be confident that the salmon farming sector is doing absolutely everything that it can to grow sustainably.”
This story was updated at 17.00 on 20 May to include new information released by the BBC, and again at 17.45 to include additional comments.