The Scottish Government is paving the way for the multinational salmon farming industry to start using a toxic pesticide blamed for killing bees, according to internal emails seen by The Ferret.
Marine Scotland’s director, Annabel Turpie, has backed a controversial new treatment system for farmed fish. The system is designed to be used with a pesticide which an expert warned had “potentially devastating consequences for marine life”.
Turpie told colleagues she would “help with engagement” with environmental regulators so the treatment could “navigate through the system”. In March she was briefed by officials to tell a fish farming company that an application to use the treatment would be given “welcomed consideration”.
Campaigners have accused the government of “meddling at the highest level” and putting “commercial gain ahead of environmental protection”. They have urged the industry to get off a “relentless chemical treadmill”.
The Scottish Government defended its support for innovation offering “procedural and technical guidance to private sector organisations”. Any applications for a new pesticide would be subject to “robust assessment by independent regulators”, it said.
The industry argued that the new treatment was a “breakthrough development” which would help eliminate pollution. It has pointed out that the treatment could be used with different chemicals.
The Ferret revealed in March 2020 that the fish farming industry was planning to use a nicotine-based pesticide called imidacloprid to kill the sea lice that can infest caged salmon. It is one of three neonicotinoid chemicals that were banned by the European Commission in 2018 for all outdoor use on plants.
The chemical “could no longer be considered safe due to the identified risks to bees,” the commission said. According to US government scientists, imidacloprid is an “environmental hazard” which can be “very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects”.
The Scottish Government is expecting the fish farm biotechnology company, Benchmark, to apply for permission to trial its “CleanTreat” system at a fish farm in Scotland. The company said that a new sea-lice pesticide, BMK08, containing imidacloprid will be used “exclusively together” with CleanTreat.
Benchmark described CleanTreat as a “water filtration system”. It would remove chemicals from fish farm treatment water in a “closed contained system” on boats before purified water is returned to the sea, the company said.
But leading neonictinoid expert and professor of biology at the University of Sussex, Dave Goulson, warned that imidacloprid was “incredibly toxic to insects and other invertebrates”.
He told The Ferret: “It seems highly likely that its use in large amounts on board ships will lead to contamination of the marine environment, with potentially devastating consequences for marine life.”
Emails released under freedom of information law reveal that the Scottish Government has been giving behind-the-scenes support for CleanTreat. Marine Scotland director, Annabel Turpie, has repeatedly offered her backing.
In an email to officials on 1 March 2021, Turpie wrote: “I’ve said we’ll help with engagement with Sepa (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) and MSS (Marine Scotland Science) on the CleanTreat technology.”
An SAIC board meeting on 24 February agreed to back CleanTreat. “The board agreed it had strong commercial relevance and potential to support regulatory innovation, and was therefore fundable,” said an extract from the minute of the meeting.
“Annabel Turpie said she was keen for Marine Scotland/Marine Scotland Science to be involved in future discussions with Sepa on this project.”
The record of another meeting of officials on 16 March said an application to use CleanTreat was expected soon. “SAIC appears to have a role in facilitating its progression through regulators,” it said.
Other emails show that Turpie was planning to discuss CleanTreat with the salmon farming company, Scottish Sea Farms, on 9 March. Officials gave Turpie a two-page briefing in advance of an online meeting suggesting lines she could take.
“We can’t circumnavigate Sepa’s consideration as they have to follow legal process,” the briefing said. “But there is a newly invigorated dedication within SG and across regulators to support innovation in the aquaculture sector – am confident this will be given welcomed consideration when an application is received.”
The emails were obtained by Don Staniford from the campaign group, Scottish Salmon Watch. “It seems that the Scottish Government is only too happy to smooth the passage for imidacloprid use in salmon farming in Scotland even before the results of field trials in Norway and environmental risks assessments have been published,” he said.
“This is the antithesis of the precautionary principle and smacks of the Scottish Government putting commercial gain ahead of environmental protection. Surely the public has a right to know before the floodgates are opened to a banned neonicotinoid?”
The wild fish group, Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, accused the government of undermining independent regulation. “The Scottish Government is now directly orchestrating Sepa and others to fast-track, with undue haste and possible serious risks to the environment, the licensing of a lethal chemical for use by salmon farmers,” said the group’s director, Andrew Graham-Stewart.
“Such meddling at the highest level calls into question Sepa’s independence as a regulator with serious implications for environmental protection.”
The Green MSP, Mark Ruskell, called on ministers to support “fundamental reforms” of the fish farming industry. “I’m concerned that industry is on a relentless chemical treadmill,” he said.
“The planned move to a widespread use of neonicotinoids does nothing to build the image of Scottish salmon production.”
The Scottish Wildlife Trust argued that any new chemicals should go through a “robust and objective” assessment. “We expect to see continued application of the precautionary principle,” said the trust’s living seas manager, Dr Sam Collin.
“This calls for a high standard of testing, and evidence that any potential environmental harm can be mitigated, before new treatments are approved for use in Scotland’s seas.”
The Scottish Government pointed out that it routinely promotes innovation across the economy including fish farming. “This includes providing procedural and technical guidance to private sector organisations who develop products for use in the industry,” said a spokesperson.
“All aquaculture farms are regulated and must meet strict guidelines to ensure the environmental effects are assessed and managed safely and any new product proposed for use in the sector must undergo rigorous testing before any approval is granted.
“This includes robust assessment by independent regulators such as Sepa and there are no exceptions to this. Any use of the new medicine imidacloprid would require authorisation from Sepa, which has received no application to use imidacloprid.”
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency confirmed that there had been no application from Benchmark and no “pre-application” discussions. Any applicant would have to provide scientific evidence on the pesticide levels that would have “no effect” on the environment.
“Trials of any new medicine that would involve a discharge of residues into the environment would require authorisation, and discharges into the sea from land, fish pens or wellboats require a permit from Sepa,” said a Sepa spokesperson.
Benchmark argued that CleanTreat with imidacloprid or BMK08 was a “breakthrough development” for the salmon farming industry. “CleanTreat is an award-winning and validated water purification system which safely removes medicine from treatment water before returning purified water back into the sea,” said a company spokesperson.
“We are currently focused on launching our new sea lice solution, BMK08 and CleanTreat, in Norway. We have received great global interest and are working on our plans to launch in other regions. At this time we do not have any scheduled trials for BMK08 and CleanTreat in Scotland.”
The industry body, Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, stressed that it supported innovative and effective technology that improved sustainability. “Benchmark’s CleanTreat water purification system provides a significant step towards a future in which no medicines are discharged into the sea,” it said.
Scottish Sea Farms declined to comment as it was “not involved” in any trials of the CleanTreat wastewater treatment system.
Cover image thanks to iStock/nnorozoff.