A bid by the Scottish Government to resolve fierce arguments over how fish farms harm wild salmon has been dismissed as a public relations stunt by campaigners.

Ministers have announced that they are setting up a “salmon interactions” working group to try and tackle the dramatic collapse in wild salmon populations, blamed by some on the spread of sea lice infestations from caged fish.

But critics have condemned the group as a “talking shop” and a “just another PR piece for the industry”. They point out that its newly appointed chair is a former fish farmer closely linked to the fishing industry – and demand action to isolate fish farms from salmon runs.

The environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, and the rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing, are jointly establishing a salmon interactions “workstream” to provide expert advice “on mitigating pressures on wild salmon”.

This will include a working group to examine the conflicts between farmed and wild salmon and make recommendations on how impacts can be “minimised”. It is to be chaired by John Goodlad, a veteran Shetland fisherman who advises Prince Charles.

Goodlad, who currently chairs two fisheries bodies, Fisheries Innovation Scotland and the Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group, is “respected by both sectors”, according to the government. But his LinkedIn profile shows that he was owner and managing director of several organic fish farms for 17 years until 2006.

The population of wild salmon in Scotland has fallen by 50 per cent from around 1.25 million in the 1960s to 600,000 in 2016. Angling groups point out that most of the decline is on the west coast, close to where salmon farms are located.

Anti-fish farming campaigners doubted whether the new group would succeed. “This kind of working group has taken place in the past but led nowhere,” says Lynn Schweisfurth from the Scottish Salmon Think-Tank.

“Unless the outcomes of this initiative are actionable, it will be just another PR piece for the industry to tick the stakeholder engagement box. We don’t need more talking shops.”

She added: “We need stricter regulations which are actually enforced and a commitment from the Scottish government to a transition to land-based closed containment. That is the only way to prevent interaction between wild and farmed salmon.”

Don Staniford, director of Scottish Salmon Watch, insisted that the science was already clear that salmon farms kill wild fish. “The fact is that disease-ridden salmon farms and healthy wild fish stocks are inherently incompatible,” he said.

“The time for talking and yet another working group is well and truly over.  The only true solution is to remove salmon farms off migration routes of wild fish. Anything else is paying lip service to wild fish protection.”

Staniford described the new working group as a “re-hash” of another “failed” interactions working group in 2013. But according to the government, the new group is separate for the previous group, which has been disbanded.

Fergus Ewing has come under fire from fish farming critics in the past for his enthusiastic support for the industry, which was worth £600 million in exports last year. He has backed the industry’s plan to double farmed salmon production by 2030.

Ewing was reported to have told an industry reception in Brussels in April: “I’m determined to give what leadership I can to make sure that no matter what challenges are thrown at it you double growth.”

The fish farming industry has also been strongly criticised by one committee of MSPs at Holyrood, and is under investigation by another. “The growth of the salmon farming industry has undoubtedly had a major impact,” said Scottish Greens environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“Many farms are damaging wild fish because they are located at the mouths of salmon rivers. If this new group is to be more than just a talking shop then it needs to consider all options including shutting and moving farms further away from wild salmon runs.”

Ruskell added: “Simply managing the damage as the industry attempts to double in size is not enough.”

The Scottish Government, however, stressed the need for industry, government and stakeholders to work together to mitigate the pressures on wild salmon. There was “no single cause” for the population collapse and some impacts were “beyond our control”, it said.

The new working group will include members from the fish farming industry and the wild fisheries sector, as well as government officials and regulators. “Wild salmon is one of Scotland’s most iconic species but the sector faces significant challenges, including declining numbers,” said Roseanna Cunningham.

“The development of this new interactions working group will therefore play a vital role in the industry’s future, providing advice on mitigating the impact of aquaculture on our wild salmon populations.”

Ewing praised Goodlad, who would bring “a wealth of experience” to his role as chair. The aim was to “ensure a sustainable and thriving future for both farmed and wild salmon,” the minister said.

According to Goodlad, both Cunningham and Ewing wanted “clear progress”. He added: “I already know that both sectors will be engaging with the process in a positive and enabling manner.”

The launch of the interactions working group has also been praised by fish farmers and fisheries managers. “We welcome the appointment of John Goodlad as chair of the interactions workstream and the group’s focus on wild fish populations,” said Julie Hesketh-Laird, chief executive of Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation.

“John’s experience in the fisheries sector will undoubtedly bring valuable guidance when considering the complex and varied pressures on wild salmonid populations.”

Dr Alan Wells, chief executive of Fisheries Management Scotland, looked forward to “engaging positively” to make “meaningful progress” for wild fish populations. “The need to make substantive progress on addressing interactions between farmed and wild fish has been apparent throughout the recent committee inquiries in the Scottish Parliament,” he said.

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Salmon farm problems in Skye

Lice spreading from caged salmon farms around the Isle of Skye can trigger “fatal infestations” of wild sea trout, according to a scientific study.

Scientists from the University of Glasgow, the Skye and Wester Ross Fisheries Trust and the Atlantic Salmon Trust found that the closer sea trout were to salmon farms the more they were plagued by sea lice.

The study, which was partly funded by a fish farming company, sheds new light on one of the most controversial issues that has long dogged the industry. Arguments between communities and fish farmers have often erupted on Skye, which is encircled by multiple salmon farms.

The scientists caught 230 sea trout in five sea lochs around Skye, counted the number of sea lice eating them and measured how far they were from the nearest salmon farm. The resulting correlations were “complex”, they said.

But they concluded “Our data add to the empirical evidence that salmon from farms can cause fatal infestations of wild sea trout and highlight the importance of limiting sea lice abundance on farms to improve wild salmonid survival.”

Lynn Schweisfurth lives on Skye and is involved with the Scottish Salmon Think-Tank which criticises the industry. “There is now only one sea loch left on Skye without a fish farm and most of our prized salmon rivers are now dangerously and perhaps irrevocably depleted,” she said.

“It is astounding that Highland Council continues to grant permission to more and bigger sites. The council consistently fails to apply the precautionary principle despite strong objections from the local community and evidence from environmentalists. It has to stop. It may already be too late.”

A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 17 June 2018.