A salmon farming company has been reprimanded for feeding a toxic pesticide to fish twice as often as permitted and breaching a safety limit, according to documents released by the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Salmon Company (SSC) has been accused by government watchdogs of breaking the rules governing the use of emamectin, a chemical fed to farmed salmon to kill the sea lice that can plague them.
The breach was discovered at a salmon farm in Loch Roag on the island of Lewis in February by Scottish Government inspectors. Subsequent investigations by three Scottish and UK government regulators led to SSC being issued an “advisory letter” in May.
Campaigners, however, have attacked regulators for failing to take tougher action and “essentially turning a blind eye to flagrant breaches”. They have highlighted the poor environmental record of salmon farms in Loch Roag, and called on SSC to close down its five sites there.
SSC, which was bought by the Faroese fish farming firm Bakkafrost in 2019, described the breach as “marginal” and “an isolated incident”. It said that it was investing “heavily” to cut the use of pesticides.
Emamectin, marketed as Slice, is discharged from fish farms into sea lochs where studies have shown it harms crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans. The Ferret has reported how attempts by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) to introduce a ban have been repeatedly fought off by the salmon farming industry.
Instead, Sepa introduced tougher restrictions on emamectin use by new or expanding farms in October 2017. But these were relaxed in April 2020 in order to help the farms cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
Documents obtained by campaigners under freedom of information law revealed that a salmon sample from SSC’s Kyles of Vuia farm in Loch Roag exceeded the “maximum residue limit” for emamectin. The sample was taken on 26 February 2020.
On 5 May 2020 Marine Scotland Science wrote to SSC saying that an inspection of the treatment records showed that salmon had been fed emamectin more frequently than permitted. There had been six treatments in a year, when the maximum allowed was three.
This was “possibly a contributing factor for the non-compliant sample,” Marine Scotland Science said. It referred the case to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate enforcement team “to determine if any further action is appropriate”.
The directorate then told SSC on 13 May that emamectin had “not been administered in accordance with the marketing authorisation” and that this was “a breach of the veterinary medicines regulations”.
But it added: “We have decided on the basis of the information held at present not to take further action on this occasion.”
Food Standards Scotland concluded that the breach was not sufficient to declare a food safety incident. The sampled fish was not harvested, and so did not go to supermarkets to be sold to consumers.
Environmental groups pointed out that emamectin breaches had been detected before, including at two of SSC’s other fish farms in Loch Roag in 2016. They said that in June 2018 the Kyles of Vuia farm had record-breaking numbers of sea lice, averaging 24 adult female lice per fish.
In 2018 The Ferret published a video showing lice-infested salmon at SSC’s Vacasay fish farm on Loch Roag, prompting animal cruelty investigations. The loch has been branded an environmental and welfare “disaster” by critics.
The wild fish group, Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, warned of “serious implications” for the nearby Langavat conservation area for wild salmon. “It is now surely time for SSC to end its operations in Loch Roag,” said the group’s director, Andrew Graham-Stewart.
“SSC seems to be incapable of controlling sea lice in Loch Roag, even when they grossly exceed the permitted quantities of treatment chemicals.”
Graham-Stewart also condemned regulators for taking a light-touch approach. “The Veterinary Medicines Directorate’s refusal to sanction SSC, essentially turning a blind eye to flagrant breaches of operating conditions, makes mockery of its role as a regulator,” he told The Ferret.
“Indeed one wonders just what any salmon farm has to do in terms of breaching regulations before any of the regulators actually decides to take punitive action.”
The documents were released to the anti-fish-farm campaigner, Don Staniford from Scottish Salmon Watch. He accused the industry of being “addicted to a cocktail of dangerous chemicals” and called for a public register of all chemicals used at salmon farms.
He said: “It is a scandal that Scottish salmon is doused in toxic chemicals yet marketed as natural and healthy. If shoppers knew Scottish salmon was given six prescriptions of a hazardous pesticide in a year then surely they would stop buying it.”
The Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation warned of the dangers to prawns and crabs. “This is an appalling example of gross malpractice that has huge implications for marine life throughout the sea loch and yet those responsible for regulating this facility are willing to stand by and let it happen,” said the federation’s scientific advisor, Dr Sally Campbell.
“Scottish Government agencies seem prepared to ignore their own policies and commitments when it comes to salmon aquaculture and the new owners of SSC should be exposed for contravening their claimed high standards of operation.”
She added: “It is no wonder the entire industry is mistrusted by many communities and other marine interests on the west coast of Scotland.”
The Coastal Communities Network, which brings together 15 groups in Scotland concerned about their marine environment, argued that it was “clearly wrong” that no punitive action had been taken.
“It is irresponsible to dump toxic chemicals into the water that is shared by many others,” said the network’s John Aitchison.
“The industry’s model of using open nets in Scotland is broken. It is engaged in a chemical arms race with sea lice but it is impossible to win such a race against parasites that quickly evolve resistance to pesticides.”
Salmon breach was ‘isolated incident’
The Scottish Salmon Company stressed that it took the welfare of its fish very seriously, and that the use of pesticides was highly regulated. “Samples were taken during routine industry testing which showed marginal residue of veterinary medicine in one fish soon after a preventative treatment,” said a company spokesperson.
“We cooperated fully with the investigation and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate issued an advisory letter to SSC’s prescribing veterinarian. Both the directorate and Food Standards Scotland concluded that no food residue violation had taken place.”
The spokesperson added: “This was an isolated incident and it is important to note that the quantities of medication being referred to are in terms of recommended limits for treatment, not a breach of permitted thresholds for environmental discharge.
“Over recent years we have been investing heavily in our proactive veterinary health plans and alternative treatments such as using freshwater and cleaner fish, to reduce any use of medicine.”
The Scottish Government pointed out that its fish farm sampling programme was conducted for the UK Veterinary Medicines Directorate, and found “very few” breaches.
“We take the protection of the marine environment seriously and recognise the importance of the sampling programme for the safety of food,” said a Scottish Government spokesperson.
“An investigation was undertaken by Marine Scotland’s Fish Health Inspectorate at the request of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, with input from Food Standards Scotland.
“The UK’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate is responsible for the regulatory requirements associated with residue sampling for this area. Marine Scotland does not have responsibility for directing enforcement activity in this area.”
The UK government confirmed that SSC had been sent a letter saying that it had breached veterinary medicines regulations. “The Veterinary Medicines Directorate uses a range of enforcement tools to secure compliance,” said a spokesperson.
“This includes advisory and warning letters, the issue of improvement and seizure notices, the destruction of products, variation, suspension or revocation of authorisations or approvals, and ultimately prosecution. Enforcement action may be taken against a business or an individual.
“In this case the directorate decided that the appropriate enforcement action was to send an advisory letter. The directorate will consider taking further action if any information comes to light in the future about breaches.”