Animal welfare campaigners have accused the RSPCA Assured food label scheme of “protecting the interests of salmon farmers and retailers” rather than wild animals by “encouraging” the use of devices that can harm dolphins, whales and porpoises.
They are concerned over the use of acoustic deterrent devices (ADDs), aka seal scarers, which deter seals from attacking fish farms by emitting a sound in the water.
Critics have branded the devices as “sonic torture”. They claim they cause hearing damage and stress in dolphins, porpoises and whales and therefore breach legislation to protect cetaceans.
RSPCA Assured said in response it is “equally concerned” about the welfare of farmed salmon and that it shares concerns about the use of ADDs. The scheme monitors animal welfare and allows companies to use its ethical logo on their food products, including farmed salmon, if they adhere to certain standards.
RSPCA Assured says its ethical food label “makes it easy for consumers to recognise products from animals that have had a better life.” The charity also investigates allegations of animal welfare breaches.
The use of ADDs is allowed but remains controversial. In March the Scottish Government published a report expressing “particular concern” over the number of farms using the devices.
The farmed salmon industry said then it would stop using ADDs that cause disturbance to protected species, and would only use devices scientifically proven to be compliant with the US Marine Mammals Protection Act (MMPA).
Seals are a major problem, the industry says, arguing it is “critical” farmers have deterrents to protect their livestock including ADDs that do not cause harm to cetaceans. According to the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO), net breaches by seals in 2019 led to 500,000 lost fish.
Fish farms must obtain a European Protected Species (EPS) licence to operate an ADD unless they can demonstrate the equipment does not disturb porpoises. These licences can be issued by government agencies to permit activities that would otherwise be illegal.
RSPCA Assured issued guidance in February over ADDs and said they may only be used in “accordance with any required licencing requirements, legislation, codes and/or guidelines”.
Campaigners have now questioned that advice. They include Corin Smith, of Inside Scottish Salmon Feedlots (ISSF), who said: “That RSPCA Assured would encourage the use of ADDs, rather than condemn them, and the severe disturbance they are causing to whales, porpoise and dolphin, only serves to underline how their priorities have been vastly skewed in favour of protecting the interests of salmon farmers and retailers – rather than protecting farmed salmon and the wild animals impacted by industrial scale open cage salmon farms.”
John Aitchison, of Coastal Communities Network (CCN), pointed out that seal scarers were being used by a company in May which has fish farms in Argyll and Bute. The Scottish Government launched an investigation into their use, as reported by The Ferret.
Aithison added: “Since July 2020, CCN has been asking RSPCA Assured to justify allowing the use of ADDs on the fish farms it certifies, and to review its certification standards. In August 2020, RSPCA Assured confirmed that it certified 158 production sites, but it was not clear how many of these farms used ADDs and what risk they posed to porpoises and dolphins.
“RSPCA Assured still cannot say whether the ADDs that are in use on fish farms today are breaking the law. If these farms are certified by RSPCA Assured they must have their certification suspended until they can prove that dolphins and porpoises are not being illegally disturbed.”
In reply RSPCA Assured told The Ferret that if any of its members were found to be operating an ADD without the correct licence they would be suspended from its scheme, “until they can demonstrate compliance”.
A spokesperson for RSPCA said it would be contacting its members “to ensure they are clear about the requirements”. They also explained that RSPCA Assured is a non-profit making charity that “exists only to bring about welfare improvements for farm animals”. Any income it receives from membership and licence fees is “ploughed back into the scheme’s running costs”.
The spokesperson continued: “Despite the difficult challenges facing salmon farming, since the RSPCA launched its welfare standards for salmon it has helped bring about many animal welfare improvements. Salmon producers have to meet hundreds of strict welfare standards, which are far above the minimum legal standards, to qualify for RSPCA Assured.
“These cover every stage of a salmon’s life from hatchery through to slaughter. The standards have been a catalyst for change throughout the entire salmon industry (not just on RSPCA Assured certified farms) with most farms now adopting these standards.”
Photo credit: iStock/TrongNguyen